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The Indian Conservative: Hindu apologism goes mainstream

Jaithirth Rao is an Indian businessman who founded Mphasis, a cookie-cutter IT outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. In time, his stature as one of India’s aspirational new tech elites gave him space to air his views on politics, history, culture and a range of other social subjects. Rao calls himself a true-blue conservative in the Burkean sense – small government, free markets, traditional family values, continuance over radical change … the whole kit and kaboodle. “The Indian Conservative” is a compilation of his various lectures, talks and thoughts on an assortment of issues that Indian conservatives have concerned themselves with. It seeks to put forth an argument that conservatism in India has a long and colourful history that deserves further study. In doing so, Rao tries to elevate the status of conservative figures like Sardar Patel and Dadabhaoi Naoroji who’ve been given short shrift due to independent India’s wholesale adoption of Nehruvian liberalism.

Before reading the book, I was genuinely curious about a lack of cohesive picture of the conservative movement in India. Other than recent speculation about how different India would have been if Sardar Patel had been made PM instead of Nehru (a long shot considering the zeitgeist of the time), there’s very little we know of the other side of Nehru’s liberal India. The previous hints I’d seen were through Guha’s books, and even he laments the lack of scholarship on Indian conservatism. So when I came across this book, I picked it up without even checking reviews online. In a way, this turned out to be a good thing because I could start with no prejudgments about the author, content or style, and could appreciate the book for exactly what it was supposed to be – an overview of conservative thought in India, and a case for why it should be studied more intensively.

Boy was I wrong! In this post, I want to do two things: firstly, review the book for what it is, and then talk about all the things that it isn’t – so you can see for yourself the various ways in which Jaithirth Rao missed the mark in entirely avoidable ways. My overall assessment of Rao’s book is mixed – on the one hand, it brings conservative thought to the mainstream and gets us talking about it on an intellectual level and without the baggage of Hindu extremism. Equally, the book fails to deliver on every single claim it makes at the outset: it’s not historically accurate or complete, it never explains what makes Indian conservatism different from its Western cousin, isn’t held up by solid arguments so much as statements of intent, and finally, is too heavily reliant on the author’s 10-mile-high understanding of Indian society.

What follows is an expansion on these two sides of the coin. This post is going to be longer than average (which is already much longer than most blogs) so if you’re liable to get bored, I’d suggest skipping the next section and jumping straight to the second part where I make my case for why Jaithirth Rao’s latest book is only a 4/10, and can be ignored by most people.

What It Is

“The Indian Conservative” considers various spheres of conservative thought, namely political, cultural and social. The book also includes a small chapter about Rao’s own views on aesthetics and education. The chapters on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres cover what it means to be Indian, and how the conservatives of history, legend and imagination have all combined to create a rich, vibrant, multiethnic and multicultural polity we know as India. These chapters are all fairly boring with very little to stand on other than a smattering of religious texts and some well-intentioned proclamations by leaders.

The really interesting bits are actually all in the first chapter: the political sphere. Here, the author begins with a broad definition of what Indian conservatism is and what its guiding principles are.

Conservatism is a school of philosophy which is not characterized by rigid contours or definitions. It believes that human beings as individuals and as communities have evolved over time, developing laws, institutions, cultures, norms and associations. This evolutionary process undoubtedly contributes to practical utility.

The conservative position is that improvements have to be gradual, and preferably peaceful. Sudden, violent attempts at so-called improvements are viewed with suspicion, because they are likely to backfire, destroy much of the good in the past and the present, and deliver a situation substantially worse than the earlier one.

For those with an interest in political theory, it’s not hard to notice a direct and strong link to Western conservatism – more specifically as a school of thought containing Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. However, Rao reminds us that these ideas are not foreign imports to India. Indeed, if one were to consider the Mahabharatha and Tirukkural to be foundational texts of the Indian civilization, we would see that the Indic civilization itself is a deeply conservative one.

These two texts – one a religious epic and the other a collection of words of wisdom – deal with the three pursuits of humankind: artha (material, political and economic wellbeing), kama (beauty, passion and sensous pleasures) and dharma (virtue and morality). A fourth pursuit – moksha – is attained when the other three are achieved.

Then, the author makes the link between ancient Indic thought and modern history.

Let us switch gears and consider names associated with modern Indian conservatism, focusing for the time being on the pre-Independence era. The first is Rammohun Roy, who was a political conservative and a supporter of British rule, while being a social and religious reformer – a reformer and not a radical. The second is Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who can be characterized as almost the founder of Hindu conservatism. […] Bankim and Lajpat Rai along with several others realized that a shared Hindu cultural identity could be the basis of overcoming vertical and horizontal boundaries among Hindus, like caste.

Hinduism, in other words, formed pre-Independence India’s “imagined community” a la Benedict Anderson. This is where Jerry Rao (that’s what the author goes by apparently) brings modern day Hindu nationalism back into the conservative fold. In his analysis, the roots of Hindu nationalism and that of Indian conservatism are one and the same. There may be some merit to this line of thought, but I think there are some gaps in Rao’s reasoning that someone else will have to fill. We’ll pick up this thread later in the post.

To those who might argue that conservatism everywhere is merely reactionary hand-wringing, Rao has a ready response:

The view that conservatives love the old and oppose all change is both simplistic and wrong. Conservatives are most certainly not reactionaries. We only love those parts of the old and inherited that are constructive and creative and not dysfunctional. We are committed to change, which as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, and as the Yajur Veda articulates, is inevitable. We, however, do not believe in jettisoning features of the past that are worth preserving or that we feel are worth cherishing.

While this is a sensible position to take and I personally find it hard to refute, it’s nigh impossible to shake the feeling that much of Rao’s analysis is based on European and American conservatism, with all the Indian bits retrofitted to prove his point. We’ll return to this objection in the next section.

Returning to the question of political conservatism, the author details how the Indian National Congress until the late 1920s saw British rule as a benevolent protector state. Its only demands were only for ‘home rule’, on the lines of what the Irish were fighting for. We know that Dadabhai Naoroji’s strongest allies in the British parliament at the time were Irishmen, and even before Naoroji’s time, Raja Rammohun Roy was received in England by the liberal Unitarians. So almost unwillingly, the author concludes, Indian conservatives ended up in the wrong camp due to the obstinacy of the British Conservative party. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that this is just how politics is played and there are no unconditional alliances in the pursuit of power.

[…] even though Rammohun Roy went to England as a very conservative emissary of the impoverished Mughal emperor, he was feted not by the High Church party, but by nonconformists like the Unitarians. Willy-nilly, even conservative Indians ended up being seen as liberal fellow travellers. In the decades that followed, British Tories preferred Indian maharajas to scholars like Naoroji. It was only the Liberal Party which would nominate Naoroji for a parliamentary seat. Gokhale faced the same situation. His only interested audience in England was to be found among liberals.


In the struggle for independence, Rao makes a case for why conservatives largely supported India’s British overlords, and why many chose fight their own countrymen alongside the colonial powers. His argument is a tried-and-tested one about maintaining continuity, making incremental progress, sticking to available remedies etc. In this regard, he sees Ambedkar, Gokhale and Savarkar as incrementalist heroes who ensured that when India did gain freedom, it would retain much of the old legal and civic structure. The Indian Constitution – despite the devious machinations of socialists and Soviet sympathizers – is thankfully only a minor facelifted version of the Government of India Act of 1935.

Here, Rao anticipates an objection from the other side: given that in one stroke the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, gender or religion, all so deeply embedded in our history and our country, would it not be more appropriate to call it a revolutionary document, far from being a conservative one? His answer is a firm “maybe”. He argues that under the British, all Indians were treated alike – as chattel to be thrown out of trains when caught travelling in the whites-only carriage. So, Indians had already internalised some of this non-discrimination anyway, and the constitution only ensured that the progress made was not lost at some later time. A supremely weak argument; but a coherent argument nonetheless.

From independence, Rao draws a straight line to the modern-day Modi government, through Partition, the Emergency, 1984 Sikh riots, 1992 Babri riots and the single-term Vajpayee government from 1999-2004. Needless to say, he papers over inconvenient pieces of history. For example, this is what he had to say about the way Advani and the BJP riled up millions of Indians to march to Ayodhya and destroy a centuries-old mosque:

BJP put together a well-crafted national programme in support of the proposed Rama temple. The party organized a motorcade, referred to as a rath yatra, from different parts of the country to Ayodhya. […] The BJP also used the Rama temple movement very intelligently on the caste front. The volunteers in the marches and motorcades came from all castes. Dalit volunteers were specially honoured as layers of foundation stones. The BJP had successfully broken away from the accusations of its critics that it was an upper-caste Brahmin-Bania party.

The denouement of the temple movement came on account of mob violence, which the Uttar Pradesh state government had solemnly assured the Supreme Court would not happen. The inability of the Hindu nationalist forces to control extreme elements remains problematic for conservatives.

And in that one line, he sweeps aside all the many ways that conservative forces – much more than any leftist threat – threaten to pull this nation apart by force. To Jerry Rao, the problem with the Babri demolition wasn’t its complete illegality, or the fact that the Hindu side has no historical claim to that piece of land, or the months of communal provocation by Advani, Uma Bharti. No, the problem was that a handful of extreme elements resorted to mob violence, which was not controlled by the Uttar Pradesh government. So really, we’re told, the UP government was at fault.

But regardless, I’m quite aware that this kind of reasoning is not entirely uncommon in Indian political circles, and even in some intellectual quarters. We can excuse Jerry Rao this piece of unoriginal falsehood as just another symptom of the moral bankruptcy that infects modern-day conservatives everywhere. While their forebears were willing to go against king and society to defend individual freedoms and bring about real change, the modern conservative movement increasingly busies itself with engaging in revisionist storytelling and name-calling instead of getting its house in order and taking a stance against extreme elements.

In responding to any and all critique of this kind of reactionary rationality, Rao likes to fall back on the concept of yuga-dharma to illustrate how the nature of Indian conservatism has evolved over time.

[…] Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda, which the historian P.V. Kane dates to the fourth century bce, talks of Yuga Dharma: the virtue or the ethic that is appropriate to the age. It is Parel’s case that Mahatma Gandhi in his own inimitable way figured out that in the present yuga, it makes sense to walk away from the excessive emphasis on moksha. […] The dharma of Gandhi’s times demanded an active involvement with this world, with his country, with his city.

Modern day conservatives like Jerry Rao fail to consider that in this yuga, yuga-dharma demands that the most conservative thing to do is to stand up against Hindu extremists and defend the Indian way of life from a complete dismemberment from the inside.

In the subsequent sections on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres, Rao has precious little to offer, even when you try very hard to see his point. In the chapter on social issues, Rao offers a tepic objection to the caste system, concluding that the caste system has some limited utility in modern India but society needs to be reformed to make sure that things like untouchability are not brought back in fashion. On the role of women, Rao acknowledges wholeheartedly that women have been mistreated and marginalized for millennia – an unusually candid admission from a writer who seems to skirt all other issues, no matter how obvious they may be to Indians or outsiders:

The same issue received considerable attention from our detractors like Kipling who argued that Indians did not deserve freedom principally because we were given to oppressing our women and our poor and in fact it was the British who protected these unhappy residents of our fair land

Lost in the chapter on aesthetics is another easily-missed admission of guilt: the mistreatment of Muslims. Rao accepts that Muslims are treated as purely political entities to be herded and cajoled into voting for whichever party represents their interest. He sees much to be achieved to bring them back to the mainstream and open up the floor to debate on social issues affecting Muslims.

Issues connected with Indian Muslims that do not deal with religion are largely seen through a political prism and not a social one. I believe that this is a mistake. Muslims are more than just voters. They have given to the country important legacies in architecture, painting, music, dress, food, landscape gardening, literature and much more.

Mysteriously, however, his thoughts on purdah, the role of women in Islamic society and hot-button issues like triple talaq are never clarified. More importantly, his expression of solidarity with Muslim conservatives is entirely undercut by the fact that this is the only time in the book when the author considers the plight of Muslims. You need to be three-quarters of the way through the book to find an acknowledgment of Muslim contribution to Jerry Rao’s “Indic culture”. This and other substantive issues with the book are the subject of the next section.


What It Is Not

At the outset, Jerry Rao’s book is not an honest retelling of Indian history. It leans too heavily on upper-caste tropes of “centuries of humiliation” under successive Muslim rulers, falls prey to the same trite upper-class arguments about the “benevolent British”, and consistently diminishes the serious differences that have always existed between various schools of thought. Let’s consider the matter of Muslims first.

The Islamic Question

In his entire chapter on Indian conservatives in the political sphere, Rao does not find space to drop a single Muslim name. I can name a few stellar individuals right off the bat: Maulana Azad, Shafaat Ahmed, Sir Muhammed Iqbal, and the indomitable Sir Allah Bakhsh.

The last name may be unfamiliar to some, and in all fairness deserves a whole post to himself, but here’s the run-down: Allah Bakhsh was the Premier of Sind in British India – up to 1942 a career conservative within the British Raj. An inveterate secularist, he championed a popular movement against the divisive Muslim League. His popularity was so immense that the Muslim League made nearly no advances into the province of Sind until his death in 1943. In 1942, Churchill’s infamous speech to the British parliament where he refered to Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement with utter disdain and made some unsavoury remarks about the possibility of granting independence to Indians. Allah Bakhsh made it clear that he’d had it – he renounced his post and fully intended to dedicate the rest of his life to gathering support for a free, secular and united India. The united part of his personal manifesto bothered the Muslim League, and every clue points to their involvement in his eventual assassination in 1943.

Was this not relevant to Rao’s case for conservative thought in the country?

Rao might counter my objection by stating that Allah Baksh was indeed a conservative for the most part but by renouncing his premiership, he also renounced all claims to being part of Indian conservatism. Fair enough. But if one is to buy this argument, why does Naoroji figure so conspicuously in Jerry Rao’s narrative? Naoroji too began as a conservative who thought he could make a difference from within the British parliament. Although he made some progress towards his goal of Indian home rule, he soon realised that the powers in Britain wanted control over India at any cost, and saw the predatory Crown as a leech sucking the Indian body dry. By the time Naoroji died in 1917, he was thoroughly disillusioned with the British ability to govern India and wanted them gone.

Naoroji was as radical as they came in 1917. And yet, Rao has no trouble including him in the political narrative. Wilful omission? Maybe. Double standards? Most definitely.

This exclusion of Muslim individuals isn’t restricted to the Independence movement – Rao ignores all Muslim contributions to Indian political thought despite the fact that for over 600 years, this nation was ruled by Muslim rulers. I want to go easy on the author and assume that he ignored them because they were causing many changes to Indian culture by bringing their new ways of life to this land of Hindus. At the risk of being accused of whataboutery, I want to put to Rao this following: if this is the case, why not at least mention Akbar, a man who fought his own zealous family to ensure equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their religious, ethnic or cultural background? For a man so fond of name-dropping, the silence on political changes due to Mughal rule is deafening. On the matter of trade and economic issues, why not mention Sher Shah Suri, the man who facilitated free and fair trade so much that during his time, a caravan could travel unmolested from Peshawar in modern Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh – a distance of over 2000 km. Such free movement is still only a distant memory in modern India, where highway robberies are painfully common. As a lover of free markets and open trade, shouldn’t Rao appreciate this unprecedented effort a bit more?

The 16th century Grand Trunk Road, a truly impressive trade route connecting Bengal to the Hindukush

In the end, it is obvious to all but the most intransigent that Jerry Rao’s recounting of Indian political history deliberately omits Muslim names while trying to secure ‘Indian conservative’ firmly in the hands of Hindu actors. In case you needed more convincing, here’s how the author summarizes what Indian culture is:

I would argue that “we the people” is meant to be a reference to people with a shared culture, however limited or tenuous that idea may be. We call it Indian culture. The fact that many of its traditional elements have a Hindu touch does not make it an exclusively Hindu culture. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are doubtless central. But so are the Jataka tales, Jain sutras, Sufi music, the Sikh gurbani, Reverend Beschi’s Tamil epic Thembavani, Abraham Panditar’s Carnatic music compositions on Jesus, Avestan verses, Bene Israel psalms, Santhal chants and so much more.

So it’s everyone on the planet except mainstream Muslims. Good to know, Jerry!

Conservatism and Its Masters

Perhaps the most cringeworthy parts of the book are where Jerry Rao echoes Indian conservatives in his defence of the British Raj as a benevolent, positive addition to Indian history. A century of poverty, strife and gradual resurgence seems to have granted him a doe-eyed version of what the British were actually doing in India. This is how Jerry Rao views the

The fundamental political dispute that defined the first half of the twentieth century in India had to do with the approach to the Raj. Many conservatives believed that with all its faults, on balance the Raj must be leveraged as a force for the good. […] It is not uncommon to keep running into the view that we were in a sense lucky not to have been colonized by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch or even the French. The Indian encounter with the Anglo-Saxon has been seen as one that resulted in a refreshing outburst of creativity, which had constructive outcomes.

A “refreshing outburst of creativity”? In what, massacring peaceful protesters?

And yet, Rao does not spare the pre-British Mughals the same generosity; this despite the undeniable fact that everything from food to clothing to our culture itself was made infinitely more colourful by Mughal patronage.

Rao’s claim that the 1950 Indian Constitution must be seen as a conservative document is comical in its absurdity. His whole argument hinges around the Manusmriti, an ancient Indian document that lays out the various rules governing Hindus, codifies the ways in which they may interact with each other and prescribes a very rigid set of roles that individuals of each caste, creed and gender could perform. Many devout Hindus consider this document to be divinely handed down from God to the sage Manu – therby making it inviolable and sacred. Most contemporary discourse about “Brahminical orthodoxy” ultimately refers back to this text. Let’s consider the evidence presented before us:

One can argue that the idea of non-discrimination too had an evolutionary history through the Raj. […] The jury is out on whether the Manusmriti was simply an idealized text or if it was practised. But for what it is worth, it did have a measure of social sanction and it did provide for differential punishments for identical crimes committed by persons belonging to different castes. It turns out that the Raj successfully subverted this ideology fairly early in the game.

[…] in the area of gender, the practices of the Raj were not necessarily much behind those prevalent in Britain and America. In the late nineteenth century, the Madras Medical College did admit women. In the early twentieth century, Cornelia Sorabji was not allowed to practise in the Bombay High Court because women were not allowed to practise in English courts at that time. The enhancement of women’s rights can also be seen as a gradual and phased affair, rather than one which was parachuted in by our Constitution.

Some have argued that the grant of universal adult franchise by our Constitution was truly revolutionary. The very chronology by which the political institutions of India evolved from the Regulating Act, Pitt’s India Act, the Charter Acts, Queen Victoria’s Proclamation, the creation of Councils, the Minto-Morley Reforms, the Montagu-Chelmsford Act and the 1935 Government of India Act all the way to our Constitution makes it an evolutionary, gradual, constitutional process. The retention of the key features of the political institutions bequeathed to us by the Raj makes the process a conservative one. The new Constitution did go against doctrines like the Manusmriti. But that process had started long ago.

Much has been written regarding the status of Manusmriti in pre-colonial Indian culture, and I don’t want to belabour this point too much. However, two things need to be noted: first, as pointed out by historians such as Ram Guha and Shashi Tharoor, the Manusmriti was considered as useful in daily affairs as the Bible is to Americans today. Laws existed separate from the rules laid out in the Manusmriti, and it was really the British who gave Manusmriti more weight than society did. The Gentoo Code that the British adopted in their dealings with Indians was the first time in centuries that the Manusmriti came to be regarded as anything more than a historical relic. This is not to imply that all pre-colonial Indians were casteless hippies enjoying life freely. No, by codifying these loose and amorphous rules as the basis of all Indian law, the Raj actually cemented the very discrimination that Jerry Rao so gleefully tries to downplay.

Second, if Jerry is fine with the British state because it subverted the provisions in the Manusmriti, one wonders if this is a matter of principle or a convenient factoid the author is exploiting. Supposing a Muslim ruler had done the same thing by imposing a set of rules that applied to Hindus without any regard to their castes, would Rao be equally glad that age-old shackles of caste had been broken by a wise ruler? What if Jerry Rao reads a bit more Indian history and learns that Aurangzeb did exactly this? Would he start singing praises about the great ruler Aurangzeb who ruled over all of India and destroyed the caste system for all eternity? I doubt it very much, and I think this inconsistency proves that for Jerry Rao, the Manusmriti matters purely because the British first legitimized it, and then subverted it. That’s not conservatism; that’s just boot-licking.


Coda

It’s now getting tiring to point out the fact that Indian conservatives are without exception drawn from the same mold of upper-caste, upper class urbanites who seem to be entirely removed from the rest of India’s “unwashed masses”, all while simultaneously preaching what the caste system actually is to people whose daily lives are defined by it. Trust me, I hate this dreadfully boring continuance as much as anyone else. And it brings me no small amount of frustration to be saying that of a writer who I thought could make a genuine attempt at wrestling with the vexed issue of conservatism in India. But Rao shows neither the self-awareness nor the honesty required to carry out such a task. In the end, his book is just another in a long line of sad restatements of cliched elite truisms about India’s glories and its colourful past, and adds nothing to enrich popular discourse. If I’d gone my whole life reading this book, I don’t see how I would have been poorer by a paisa, an ounce or a thought. However, I suspect that “The Indian Conservative” is going to be instructive to liberals looking to rebutt Indian conservate arguments. If nothing else, it goes to demonstrates all the reasons why it may be considered at best a hollow intellectual space, and at worst a dangerous normalisation of previously taboo apologisms.

In one word, Jaithirth Rao’s attempt at mapping out the history of conservative thought in India can best be summarized as ‘dishonest’. It papers over many issues in Indian culture purely because the author finds them inconvenient to his narrative that ther is a positive thing called “Indian culture”. Where impossible to ignore, Rao’s hamfisted arguments only delegitimize the conservate case, even while exposing his less-than-adequate research. Nevertheless, the book is important as an emblem of the growing brazenness with which Hindu apologism is seeping into everything in India. If nothing else, it may be a sign of the books to come.

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Society US Politics

America is a (glamorous) “shithole country”

Think back to the last time you thought “damn, I like America”. What was it that caused you to say that? Was it Hollywood? Was it the military victories of the World Wars? Was it Yellowstone? Was it the history of commitment to internationalism and free trade? Or was it the unlikely story of a backwater republic’s rise to power within a century of indepedence?

For me, it was the election of a black man to the office of President in 2008. When Obama was elected president, I was in high school. At home, the first term of the UPA was nearly done, and the story of India’s development was a conclusio inevitabilis. Politics at home was dry, predictable and repetitive. Like everyone around me, I amused myself with the affairs of the USA. For a whole year, I followed the breathless coverage of his “Yes We Can” campaign, watched all his interviews on talk shows, almost memorised his victory speech and closely followed the first years of his presidency. My mind screamed “America is the best!” and I wanted to move there as soon as I could.

In my heart, though, there was a seed of doubt sown by something I read in an op-ed: America is 13% African-American, and its economy is built on the backs of people of colour; yet, it took the country 230 years to let a black man rise to be Commander in Chief. Why? As years went by, I started noticing cracks in the Great American monolith and the more I knew, the less inclined I was to give America a free pass in world politics.

This post is a long-overdue crystallization of that line of thought. Some of you who read the title may go “well no shit!”, but I’m not trying to preach to the converted. My intention is to reach out to the skeptical, maybe even the unbelievers. I’ll try to lay out a case that doesn’t assume that you hate Trump already, or that you’re a globalist, liberal, SJW, libcuck, libtard… You get the point.

Part 1: What makes a shithole country?

Let’s be honest about one thing: we wouldn’t be here discussing “shitholes” if Trump hadn’t brought that word into popular discourse. His original comment, per The Washington Post, included Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries. Going by the nations covered by Trump’s travel ban, I’m assuming this meant Somalia, Nigeria and several middle-eastern countries as well.

The WaPo piece includes an explanation by a White House spokesperson:

Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people . . . Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.

Raj Shah (son of immigrants from one such shithole country)

Note that the White House people don’t dispute the substance of the allegation. Trump himself issued this rebuttal:

OK. So poor countries can be considered shithole countries under some conditions. Fair enough. What else do we know about the countries Trump considers bad? There’s a pretty detailed account of what kind of countries Trump doesn’t like in this NYT piece. From there, we can add a few more characteristics of shithole countries:

  • Has high prevalence of AIDS and other deadly diseases
  • Large section of population is homeless or lives in low-security housing

In the past, he has made several unsavoury comments about Mexicans, and from them we can also get an idea of what makes them so revolting to the American mind.

From all of the above, we get a more complete picture of what makes a country a “shithole”:

  1. High rate of poverty
  2. High incidence of preventable/deadly/communicable disease
  3. Homelessness
  4. Personal violence

To the above, I will also proceed to add a few more features that I think of when I think of the word “shithole”. Feel free to play your own version of a free association game to see what you, your friends and family come up with. Here’s my shortlist of essential shithole characteristics:

  • Institutionalised corruption
  • Political and politically-motivated violence
  • General sense of lawlessness and prejudicial justice
  • Lack of accountability in governance

Depending on where you are in life, you may even think that an absent or weak “social safety net” is one of the conditions of being in a shithole. To me, a social safety net is a paid feature in the freemium game called Life. We can agree to disagree on this one.

A small proviso

In many ways, Trump’s position on immigrants is nothing new. On this and other matters, his is the voice of a silent majority on Capitol Hill and in towns far from the “coastal elite”. He is no great orator; his greatest political gift is that he says the quiet part out loud. A simmering hostility towards immigrants is almost essential to the American life. Bush Jr. acted on the same Islamophobic principles during his “war on terror“, Nixon felt the same paternalistic revulsion towards Chilean socialism when he ordered the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Raegan used “war on drugs” as a dog-whistling tactic to rouse anti-immigrant feelings in middle America even as he pumped the Contras in Nicaragua full of arms, leading to the very refugee crisis that Trump bemoans now. But wait! Before you begin to think of this issue as a Republic construct, let me remind you that the Contras were created almost out of thin air by Jimmy Carter. Let me also remind you of Clinton, the man who turned the immigration system into the violent edifice we see today. And at last, let’s not forget Obama’s immigration track record, which was built around a rotten racist core that demonised immigrants and made humanitarian refugees (which were, by the way, created by America’s policy of waging endless war) seem like grifters begging for freebies.

So let’s not act all sanctimonious about this: everybody in Washington has always believed something roughly along the same lines.

Part 2: What makes America a shithole?

Hint: It’s not this guy.

Let me be honest about another thing: I’m not the first one to say that America is a shithole country. Right after Trump made his comments about Haiti and El Salvador, a wave of political pundits descended onto liberal magazines like The Atlantic and New Yorker to lay out their reasons for why America is itself a shithole country. Much ink was spilt on the question of exactly who made it this way, with the inevitable conclusion being that, yes, it was Trump’s fault all along.

(There is a one-liner to be made of how people in White Houses shouldn’t be slinging mud, but I can’t find the right words for it.)

For my part, I’ll try to ignore the Trump connection, because I think it’s shortsighted, politically motivated and also plain disingenuous to posit that the country was somehow much better earlier and this one guy has driven it into a ditch within the last 3.5 years. Trump does sometimes have a role to play, but largely as an actor within a much broader system. I’ll explore this in part 3. In part 1, I laid out my citeria for what makes a shithole, and now I’ll try to show that America does in fact live up to each one of those criteria.

Poverty and homelessness

What do you think is the poverty rate in America? And what do you think is another country with a similar poverty rate? Whatever you thought, you were wrong. It’s 15%. Think about that: one in six Americans is below the poverty line. And depending on whom you ask, that’s equivalent to either Lebanon or Indonesia. If you want to see how high the poverty rate can go, here’s a useful heatmap:

Southern states remain the poorest in the U.S. even as the ...

Among US states, US Census data shows that Mississippi has a poverty rate (19.7%) roughly equivalent to Iraq (according to the World Bank and CIA World Factbook).

But if you want to see grinding poverty, you need to look at the “other” territories of the USA. In many ways, US treatment of outerlying islands is the textbook definition of “stepmotherly”. American Samoa has poverty rate of 65%, and a per capita income equivalent to Botswana. Puerto Rico, despite the odds and decades of neglect, has a median per capita income of $20k, which is more than Greece and less than Saudi Arabia.

Nearly as egregious is the youth poverty rate: almost one quarter of all American youth live in poverty. Kids are even worse-off: the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality calls the US a “clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league”. One in five children in the US don’t get enough to eat. The UN Special Rapporteur on poverty toured America and concluded that it has some of the most extreme poverty he had seen anywhere in the world. (The introduction to his report can be found here, and the full report here.)

Does that not make it a “poor” country? No wait, you may add, what about New York City and Los Angeles and the beautiful kleptopolis of Seattle, WA? Ah yes, the tale of the American city, where fortunes are made and dreams are realized. But whose dreams exactly? Over half a million Americans have nowhere to go at the end of the day. The three cities of NYC, LA and Seattle have over 150,000 homeless people between them. New York, that quintessential “city of dreams”, has nearly 80,000 homeless people, the majority of whom have been on the streets for over a year.

To my friends who want to pretend like the scores of homeless at your subway station don’t exist: at what point do you stop looking up at those gleaming high-rises and look down at the grime and dirt of the streets?

Disease

Everybody likes a good Bernie joke. Here’s one by Conan O’Brien: Bernie Sanders says his campaign is trying to appeal now to senior citizens. The problem is, every time Bernie says, “Feel the Bern,” the seniors think he’s talking about acid reflux.

Acid reflux, dental implants and hip replacements are great for use in one-liners about old age. But what about obesity? Or random parasitic infections? This widely-quoted paper found that nearly 12 million Americans have an undiagnosed or neglected parasitic infection. In 2017, a study by Baylor University found that in the rural south, all sorts of diseases of extreme poverty continue to thrive. Ever heard of hookworm? Nearly 34% of people tested in Alabama were found to have traces of it.

And it’s not just entirely preventable third-world diseases. Equally appalling are the rates of “diseases of affluence“: diabetes, obesity, asthma, coronary heart disease, cancer, allergies, gout and alcoholism. Despite the misnomer, “diseases of affluence” are not entirely born out of sedentary lifestyles and an excess of comfort. Studies show that more and more, it’s the poorer regions of the world that are being affected by lifestyle changes and unhealthy diets.

Empty calories are often very cheap calories for poorer sectors around the world, so that consumption of processed or dominantly carbohydrate diets with insufficient whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is more common among the poor. In addition, poorer households often are less able to pay for the expensive consequences of these diseases in the middle-aged and elderly (e.g. insulin provision for diabetics, the consequences of heart attack and stroke in the elderly). Ironically the same poorer sectors in poorer parts of the world and even within the United States can simultaneously face the issues of “traditional malnutrition” (i.e undernutrition, insufficient consumption of vitamins, iron, zinc, calories), especially among children and women, as well as diseases of overconsumption of empty calories.

https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/teaching_materials/food_supply/student_materials/1205

And what does that lead to? Obesity, that’s what. Nearly 42% of all Americans are obese, which has increased from 30% in 2000.

Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, BRFSS, 2018. See map details in table below.
Obesity in the USA. Source: CDC

But eh, you might say, obesity is no big deal. My momma is pretty fat and she rolls around just fine.

What about infant mortality? What about the fact that more children in the US die in the first few hours of their lives than in 50 other countries, many of them considerably poorer and lacking in resources? It’s not just the children: the United States has the worst maternal death rate in the developed world, with black women three times as likely to die of childbirth than white women. Predictably, this is much, much worse in the rural south. The CDC admits that over 60% maternal deaths are entirely preventable, and if you take that into account, the US would still be ranked in the mid 20s worldwide, and in the bottom half among developed countries. And this situation is only getting worse:

Chart: The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. (26.4) far exceeds that of other developed countries.
Deaths per 100,000 live births. Source: NPR

I don’t want to belabour the point, but there is also this other thing called an “opioid epidemic” merrily sauntering through middle America. But I guess legitimate wars on drugs would be too much for the helpless American populace to handle. Drugs come from Mexico and Colombia, fool! Have you not watched Narcos? Drugs are made in the jungle, and they most definitely are not because of one pharmaceutical company headquartered in Stamford, CT. Even if that were true, not now! Not when there’s this other unseen epidemic that is mysteriously spreading across the country. There are rumours that some people have lost jobs or something, but I don’t know man. It all seems anecdotal to me.

So what kind of care can you expect when you’re sick, pregnant or for some reason need the healthcare system to take care of you?

Unemployment benefits? Maybe. But not gratis.

Mandatory maternity leave? Zilch.

In a pandemic? $1200, take it or leave it.

Special consideration? None.

Living wage? GTFO.

Job security? Nope.

If you happen to be dying, or need intensive care but cannot afford to pay your medical bills, you’re humanely sedated and carefully dumped butt-naked at a bus stop in the freezing cold.

So yes, America ticks the “disease-ridden” and “no social safety net” boxes quite comfortably.

Crime and violence

Even before BLM, most sentient beings knew the perils of living in America: guns, religious fanatics, white supremacists and an absentee healthcare system all together mean that to move to America was never the best option you had. In order to really see the pernicious undercurrent of crime coursing through American veins, you need to look deeper than the shocking (and rightly so) incarceration rates in the US.

Yes, there is a drug issue in the USA. And yes, there is a violent crime issue as well. And obviously, there’s a gun crime issue too. According to some highly intelligent people, the spike in the 60s-80s was caused by lead. Yes, the heavy metal. Not violent leaders or a history of institutionalised racism or gratuitous wars leading to a cult of the soldier. Lead.

Be that as it may. The first and most important thing to know about American violence is that it works very differently from the way crime works in developing countries. In most modern states, there are two categories of violence: interpersonal and state-inflicted. Interpersonal violence is simple: you harm someone else and he harms you back. State-inflicted violence is when people in authority use state apparatus to cause you harm.

In America, interpersonal violence exists everywhere and forms the visible violence that most people talk about when they discuss violence. The south is, predictably, more violent than the north, but not in all kinds of violent crime. Of course, there’s the issue of definition: what is a violent crime, and what is not. As commonly understood, violent crime includes mugging, assault, homicide, rape, hate crime etc. Horrible, but generally there are legal remedies to these. Obviously, the way to deal with a fear of interpersonal violence is to carry some sort of deterrent: pepper spray, guns, bodyguards, body doubles etc.

What most people don’t ever see but always have an uneasy feeling about is the other kind of violence: state-inflicted. The kind of violence that you can’t do anything to deter. This is the kind of violence that people in positions of privilege don’t fully comprehend. Police brutality is the most obvious manifestation of state violence.

In Torture and State Violence in the United States, Robert Pallitto lays out a comprehensive view of the widespread use of violence by state actors to stamp out dissent and cultivate a sense of fearful awe among the American populace. Today, thanks largely to the Black Lives Matter movement, we are all aware of the extent to which police brutality is common. To a person of colour, modern America is scarcely different from a warzone.

For example, black people and people of colour are much more likely to end up in violent interactions with the police, and more than twice as likely to be tasered to death. Being tasered is actually the best-case scenario if you’re a person of colour. Tasers in general are not lethal, and allow policemen to handcuff you without having to bump you over the head with a glorified baseball bat. Deaths in custody and suicides following arrest are commonplace, and are several times the rate in UK, Australia or NZ.

This is taken from a brilliant CNN piece about police crime, and I highly recommend going through the original for more details.

(Sidenote: there’s a nice report from the UK about the inner workings of police violence there. Yes, it’s a different country with vastly different social norms and much less violence of any kind but it’s instructive as to how people actually die, and what sorts of remedies are offered to the victim’s family.)

Let’s say you’re the target of police violence in America. What happens to you then? What can you do to hold them accountable? As any person from a shithole country can tell you, absolutely nothing at all. The technical term in the US is “qualified immunity“, which is basically fancy-people talk for “unless they violated some federal law, you can go fuck yourself”. Supreme Court judges have sided with the police in quashing case after case meant to hold police accountable for the violence they perpetuate. Nearly every infamous cop accused of violence, brutality and murder has walked away practically scot-free. Most are only suspended for a brief time, and nearly all get to keep their salaries and pension.

According to this peer-reviewed paper, “the average lifetime odds of being killed by police are about 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Risk peaks between the ages of 20 and 35 for all groups. For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death”. This level of callous disregard for human life is scarcely any different from India – which, I should have mentioned at the top, is most definitely a shithole country – where policemen routinely get away with murder, rape and all manner of torture. Some even become popular icons.

Remember Cops?

Ring a bell, America? Your pop culture is filled with “rogue cops” who don’t care about justice and use it as a means to personal glory. Let’s not forget the glorious dumpster fire that is the show Cops which makes it seem like every POC is up to something shady and if it weren’t for the ever-watching eye of the beat cop who’s armed to the teeth, the entirety of Western civilization would just come crashing down.

Corruption

This is the final aspect of America’s shitholery that I’m going to consider. Not because it’s conclusive, but because in nearly every discussion of developing countries like Nigeria, India and Mexico, “corrupt” is used as a sort of dirty word, a smear intended to show uncivilized these countries are, and used as a prop to lean on and gloat about how great the West is for having gone beyond cash bribes.

Reuters has consistently reported on how the Supreme Court uses its flawed machinery to shield murderous cops from justice. The untrained, “educated” eye is ready with a defense: courts only act on precedent, and can only act within the bounds of the law.

But the uneducated native of a shithole country (such as myself) can tell you in an instant that there has to be some sort of funny business going on here. No judicial system can uphold one statute of abused and misused laws for 50 years without puncturing some holes in it. Besides, the issue of violent cops has been in the popular mind for at least 30 years now, since the murder of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. According to nearly every independent study, at least 1000 people die at the hands of the police every year. The “lack of precedent” argument doesn’t pass the sniff test.

There are hints that the judiciary in America is indeed extremely corrupt. A recent Reuters report found that thousands of state and local judges across the United States were allowed to keep their positions on the bench after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold. In the same decade, two Pennsylvania judges were found guilty of sending thousands of minors to juvenile detention in return for cash kickbacks from the detention center operators. Then there’s the now-infamous case of a judge who overturned a billion-dollar lawsuit against an insurance company that had financially supported his appointment to the bench.

A paper from 2009 raised this question of corruption in US courts, finding that it may be a seriously underreported issue. The paper found that there are indeed no robust mechanisms in place to prevent and uncover low-level judicial corruption, but estimates that around 3 million bribes are paid each year in the US judicial system. 3 million individual bribes.

All of this means that there is most definitely a corruption in America’s courts. And the American public don’t know it simply because there’s just no way to know about it. In other words, America, your courts are no better than the banana tribunals of rural Rwanda.

Is that not the definition of being a shithole?

Part 3: The Glitz and The Glamour

The part where Trump makes an appearance

I have one more thing to be honest about: I lied earlier; Trump does matter. He matters because he’s part of the woodwork now, and any discussion of the Trump administration’s actions without discussing the influence of the man they’re all cheerfully following to the grave would be just as foolish.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Trump is a byproduct of America’s shitholery system. The roots of his billions are in unhonoured contracts, low-level kickbacks and relentless exploitation of US insolvency and bankruptcy courts. His hotels materialized only because he struck deals with municipalities and unions. His apartment complexes were built on land previously used for low-rent housing, which he found ways to swallow up – generally by abusing eminent domain. At every step of the way, he used other people’s poverty and misfortune to the benefit of a handful of wealthy people who could afford his properties. When thinking of Trump’s rise to power, the term “klepto-plutocrat” comes to mind.

(Sidenote: Trump’s signature project – the border wall – can only ever come to fruition through a free-wheeling abuse of eminent domain. Vox has a nice short explainer on this topic. In many ways, the Trump story is almost causally linked to the evolving concept of where private property rights must be superceded by the need to provide public goods.)

Even as Trump’s projects sank and took whole communities with them, Trump himself stayed above the water. This cultivated feeling of personal invulnerability permeates Trumpian thought, and informs every single decision his administration makes. Consequently, the very kind of people who are drawn to Trump are the kind of people who stop at an accident scene to steal wallets and jewelry. There’s no need to name names here, because literally every last one of them is animated by a desire to profit from America’s wretchedness at any cost.

Trump’s worst vice, then, is that he takes his hands off the wheel just so he can claim insurance later. Whereas previous administrations tried to keep the country from descending to anarchy, Trump feeds the flame to try and gain from it. When the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” led to mass Islamophobia and anti-war riots, Bush tried to put out the fire by insisting that he was fair and made a point of trying to bring Islamic clerics into political dialogue. When Obama realised that his administration’s actions on immigration reform had led to more border deaths, he saw to the passing of DACA as a token gesture. When Obama’s environmental reforms and Obamacare led to the Republicans flipping the Senate and the House, he went soft on African-American issues and even went so far as to denigrate Black Lives Matter, leading to many recent commentators to question his overall position on the matter of black rights.

In nearly every administration before Trump, there was present a self-correcting impulse which kicked in after something major had occurred. Trump, on the other hand, actively makes things worse, like he has done in the ongoing BLM protests. A few months ago, as the COVID cases started to rise, Trump saw it fit to spout conspiracy theories, asking people to go out and not believe the “Chinese hoax”. The administration has used protests to try to conceal its more nefarious dealings: he commuted the prison snetence of Roger Stone, the man who helped Trump take the presidency, and who was later convicted of obstruction, witness tampering and perjury. You know where else this happens? You guessed it: in sub-Saharan kleptocracies. The administration has also used the pandemic aid as a political tool by withholding details of who received how much. Would anybody be surprised if Trump himself was found to be skimming off the top? Of course not. That’s just what leaders of shithole countries do. Remember Lula?

The people around him are no different: even as oil companies faced losses and employees lost jobs, Big Oil CEOs reel in big bonuses. Even as the country is convulsed by COVID-related deaths and related job losses, the stock market is at a record high. Even when Florida’s pandemic response has been on the same level as India’s, a Florida pastor got rich peddling bleach as a cure. Just across the sea, Cuba’s population is largely free of the virus, and officials worry only about the risk of Floridans infecting Cubans.

Some other countries that have managed to contain the COVID epidemic? Rwanda, Uruguay, Vietnam and Senegal. People from Rwanda are allowed to travel to Italy and other parts of the EU. Guess who can’t? People from China, India and the US of America.

Oh, how the tables have turned.

Categories
Politics Society

2020: The Year Liberalism Dies

Okay, the title is a bit dramatic – but not needlessly. Liberalism has enjoyed a long and storied run since the end of WW2. But ever since the USSR collapsed and the alternative ceased to exist in 1991, liberalism has grown to be increasingly the default ideology of any and every public intellectual. However, 2020 is likely to be the beginning of its end. Yes, you can blame COVID-19 for it, but there’s much more to the impending liberal crisis than just a one-off unlucky break.

A problem of definition

Who is a liberal? “Someone who upholds liberal values”. And what are those? Oh, you know – individual liberty, equality before law, separation of church and state, free markets, a strong state, independent judiciary, gender equality, gender equity, the welfare state, social safety net, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of free religious association, environmental consciousness, capitalism, democratic principles, free and fair elections, a republican state, plurality of opinion, separation of powers among the three pillars of government, an elected legislature, world peace, universal right to the pursuit of happiness… You know. The obvious. Everybody knows what a liberal is.

Yes, political scientists and politicians understand liberalism very differently and in a much more nuanced manner. But most people don’t. Even if we could agree that everybody knows what a liberal is, we would still find that not every liberal is equally liberal. I find that even the liberalism vs progressivism is all too often simply a case of many distinctions without a difference. So, the “progressives vs others” friction has always existed within liberalism, which COVID is merely giving space for.

Because of the exceedingly vague definition of liberalism, personalities as vastly different as Narendra Modi, Bernie Sanders, Greta Thunberg and Boris Johnson have all happily co-existed under the liberal banner. Or at least, they all found it expedient to call themselves liberal at one time or the other. Liberalism’s original sin is this vagueness of definition. The vagueness was partly intentional: it was useful in WW2 and the Cold War to be able to gather under one banner to unite against a common enemy. But now, as liberalism is increasingly unrivalled, political leaders and thinkers have had to delineate their beliefs and policies more clearly, which has led them down their own ideological “make your own adventure” where it’s possible to mix and match liberal principles as one sees fit. This state of affairs was always tenuous and liable to fracture at the seams. In 2001 after 9/11 and in 2008-09, during the GFC, we saw the first hints of the breakdown of the liberal tent. In 2020, we will see the end of it.

COVID-19

The novel coronavirus has been a perfect storm of several independent events coming together. It makes sense for me to try to articulate why a simple virus is the reason for the breakdown of a 200 year old political order.

First, it’s a virus. Bacteria are easy to grow in labs, test things on and kill. Viruses are notoriously hard to study since many do not reproduce under laboratory conditions, and because they mutate rapidly and no two strains are the same. Moreover, the way antivirals are developed is that scientists first identify a protein that they can try to disable. Then, they ensure that this protein is unique to the virus and not a common byproduct of other human bodily processes. Then, they are tested for efficacy, safety and effectiveness. This lasts several decades and as a result, the economics of developing antivirals is insane. Vaccines are easier to develop, but even they take 18-24 months to be brought to market and even then, are only effective against one strain of one particular virus. A simple mutation can make a whole family of drugs irrelevant. Because of this, very few firms bother with antivirals and vaccines.

Second, it disproportionately affects old people. More familiar viral diseases like HIV, flu and Hepatitis are different: either they affected everyone or affected children more. As a result, nobody cared about some old people dying of an unexplained illness because the logic was “meh, they were going to snuff it soon anyway”. Even now, as I write, young countries like India, New Zealand, Syria and those in the Sahel region have not been affected as badly as older ones like Germany, Italy and Japan. Traditionally, countries tend to accumulate older people as their institutions improve and development causes a reduction in mortality to due to pestilence and war. So, developed countries actually more likely to be hurt by COVID-19. For liberal countries like the US that were used to lecturing underdeveloped nations on things like poverty eradication, cleanliness and education, COVID has come as a rude shock and shown that their institutions back home need to be fixed first. Isn’t that an inversion!

Third, the symptoms are very common and easy to ignore. When was the last time you went to a doctor just because of a fever or dry cough? Never, that’s when. And old people complaining of difficulty breathing is like fish complaining about being wet. Nobody cared because we’ve seen this before and we’ve all been conditioned to accept that these things happen from time to time.

Finally, it started in China. China doesn’t share any information with the rest of the world. We know that. In most other cases, that’s fine because a lot of countries are cagey with transparency to the outside world (think Bhutan, Moldova, Russia, etc.) But with diseases, this means that the rest of the world is kept in the dark and robs governments of time to act. China’s experience with SARS taught the Chinese state a valuable lesson: if you find a new disease, don’t tell everybody about it; they’re not going to help, and will only use it as an excuse to lecture your people about the harms of eating random animals. And China learnt that lesson very well. Almost too well.

Liberalism at war (with itself)

Crises like this are supposed to bring societies together, and provide an opportunity to bury past differences. But COVID-19 has done the opposite: it has exposed all the ways in which liberalism is at war with itself. A core idea of modern progressivism is the idea of intergenerational warfare: that Boomers saddled the Millennials with a failed state and a bad economy, thereby hurting their chances. So, when COVID comes around, a frequent theme of early response to it was schadenfreude. The youngsters were ecstatic that these pesky oldies were going to kick the bucket because of their own selfish actions decades ago. “You voted to open up healthcare, make it profit-driven and let companies gouge patients while profiteering off death and illness. You deserve this new disease. Suck it, grandpa!”

As time went by, we started seeing people using the economic opportunities presented by COVID to enrich themselves. People started buying up sanitizers, toilet paper and masks and reselling them online. Some others started using the cheap flights as an excuse to get out of the country and enjoy a holiday they wouldn’t otherwise be ablet o afford. These “Coronavacations” were the economic reaction by a younger, more progressive generation knowing that they were safe. “To hell with global warming. Right now, I’m going to have some fun.”


As the disease began to spread, the first impulse was to shut everything down. First came gatherings and protests, then public transport, then borders, then flights, then even venturing outside for a walk. As the disease took shape and turned into a pandemic, that bright beacon of liberal symbolism – the European Union – began to crumble. It began as a wave of anti-migrant sentiment when Europe closed its borders disallowing refugees from the Middle East. Then, it morphed into something else: Italy’s borders were closed for the first time in decades. Then, it became a widespread mistrust of everything alien – entire cities, villages, states were placed under lockdown. Anything that had a border was shut off from the rest of the world by any means necessary.

The great liberal cause of free public transport suddenly made so much less sense. Do we really want to encourage everybody to travel so freely and spread diseases willy-nilly? A consensus quickly appeared: no, we do not.


As people started to stay at home more and workplaces shut down, environmental activists were delighted: the planet would get a breather. But of course, they couldn’t openly rejoice in the face of this calamity.

Source: NASA

“Maybe we didn’t need so much productive capacity after all?”

“But that’s what the free market had created so it must have been right!”


And then, of course, came the real progressive issues: flexible working arrangements, working from home, parental leave and paid sick leaves.

“If we could all have worked from home this easily, why haven’t we been? And now that we have all realized that healthcare is super important, can we please get it now? Thanks.”


But then, if everybody works from home, would that not lead to an increase in domestic crime? What about caring for the elderly? Most of us younger folk were all too happy to just let someone else take care of that job because we were away at work. But now that we’re home, are we supposed to work, care for our parents, help our kids with homework, shop for groceries online and still nurture our hobbies? Yeah, right!

And then there’s education. Most progressives want tuition-free education or some equivalent. Classic liberals don’t. The free-market argument lay on examples like Harvard and MIT, and the progressive argument rested on HBCUs, minority welfare and issues of the urban poor. What does that argument mean in a post-Corona world? Nothing, because everybody’s studying online anyway.


Running in the background was the question of economics: if everybody stays home in fear of the worst, how will the liberal idea of “eternal economic growth” be sustained? Nearly every country affected by the virus is looking into some form of economic stimulus package consisting of a mixture of lowering interest rates and corporate loan waivers. As the breadth and length of this stimulus grows, progressives everywhere are beginning to ask if this is the best way to go about things.

Support for economic stimuli, infrastructure spending, a living wage and universal basic income are no longer liberal ideas – they’ve been mainstreamed to the extent of something like a free press and freedom of movement. These are simply not defining features of liberalism anymore.

The coming changes

Clearly, liberalism has many internal battles to figure out before it can move on. So, what will the future of liberalism be? In one word, fragmented. As Tyler Cowen writes in his Bloomberg column (published as I was still writing this piece)

Over the span of less than a week, virtually every major institution in American life has been subject to radical changes to their daily operations, and it is not clear when things will return to normal. Covid-19 may well make a bigger impression on the national consciousness than 9/11 or the financial crisis of 2008.

And he may be right. More than that, it’s going to lead to a further refinement of what it means to be a liberal. Increasingly, it will come to mean nothing at all. By the end of the year, liberalism’s component movements will all break away and find a political voice of their own. We have seen this before: disappointment with climate inaction created the space for Green parties around the world, and job losses with globalization led to the resurgence of populist liberalism.


That said, here are my wild speculative thoughts on how COVID-19 is likely to reshape politics in the coming years:

  • A tentative rethinking of globally extended supply chains – politics and paranoia will lead to countries deciding to try to manufacture everything by themselves. Self-sufficiency will become the operative word of the new decade
  • As everybody rushes to make their own stuff, expect environmental concerns to take the backseat. Once again, forest cover will begin to recede rapidly in countries like India and China
  • For people in Europe and the rest of the Western world, COVID will always be a “Chinese virus”, spread by globalization and exacerbated by open borders. Expect these to lose their sheen and come under increased attack from populists who use this to further xenophobic politics
  • The end of the Euro project – Germans and French citizens may rightly feel that the reason COVID spread to their countries from Italy was because of the Eurocentric visions of their ruling parties which prevented them from closing their borders sooner
  • The rise of explicitly feminist politics that prioritize women’s issues over other liberal causes
  • Healthcare will finally become a universally acknowledged right – most of the opponents of Medicare For All in the US were old people. Now, as they realize their vulnerability, expect them to change their stance
  • As health benefits become inevitable, companies looking to keep their costs low will begin to recruit even more men. Thus, the feminism’s raison d’etre will come full circle
  • Public transportation will just not be anybody’s concern anymore – who wants to advocate for faster disease spread?
  • The erosion of individualism in the Western world – finally, the individual rights project that began with Protestantism and Martin Luther will see itself come to an end as communities everywhere reassert themselves and recluses realize the importance of having someone to talk to, empathise with and help out in need

But no matter how society responds to this pandemic, one thing is for certain: liberalism as we know it will not survive 2020.

Categories
US Politics

Bernie’s Coronavirus Problem

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the next best

Otto Von Bismarck

It’s no secret that I – like most other sentient beings – would prefer a progressive candidate to some brain-dead party stooge like Joe Biden. In any other year, the Super Tuesday results notwithstanding, Bernie would have had a very realistic shot at the nomination: there are a few more large, progressive states like Oregon, NY, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and some newly-progressivized ones like Wisconsin that are yet to caucus. In any other year, it would have been possible for Bernie to hold on and hope for the best.

But not in 2020, for 2020 looks to be the Year of the Virus. And the Virus – COVID-19, Coronavirus, SARS 2.0, “Chinese Pneumonia”, whatever you want to call it – is taking its toll on the world’s economy and political institutions. In authoritarian regimes like Iran, Russia and China, the Virus is being credited with weakening trust in the state and opening up an avenue for reforms. In failed and flailing states like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, it is going practically unchecked and is thus sowing the seeds of a future revolution. In Italy, which has fast turned into the largest non-Chinese center of the pandemic, the virus has taken its toll on the newly-elected government, its stability and the entire economic system. It doesn’t help that even without the Virus, Italy was close to a recession and people’s lives were pretty miserable already.

In stable economies, however, the virus is actually leading people to dig in and repose greater faith in their elected democracies. In India, South Korea, Israel and Japan, the growing concern over the virus is leading to mass hysteria and confusion. Savvy governments there have used this to their advantage in two ways: first, by making it seem like the spread of the Virus is a purely chance event and second, they have made themselves the arbiter of decided what is “fake news”, thereby gifting themselves the power to intervene in any misinformation campaigns. The latter case is obvious in Singapore, where a recent anti-fake news measure has been used to gag journalists and bloggers, leading to a chilling effect on free speech.

The US is quite different but entirely recognizable. The broken healthcare system in that country is making everything worse, and confounding statements by the CDC, White House and Congress are adding to a sense of widespread confusion and contributing to creating mass hysteria around an infection that is still (as of this writing) only lethal in 3% of all cases. Statistics aside, there are more political concerns for anybody watching the news: if everybody stays home, though, what does that mean for the presidential contest that was front and center just a couple of weeks ago?

The worst hit by widespread calls for self-isolation is, of course, Bernie. Bernie’s strength lies in his popular following, and the massive rallies his devoted followers congregate in to celebrate the rise of a social democrat in an age of hyper-capitalism. But the very same rallies that brought him fame and immeasurable relevance in 2020 are now out of the question. Televised debates, in which he has generally done pretty okay, are also unlikely to have a live audience, which means that Bernie can no longer get the audience all fired up and rooting for him – a tactic that he’s used to spectacular effect in the past. More than that, the mass panic and confusion around the Virus is making Trump some sort of a paternalistic figure, the “savior in the White House” that’s going to save the country. To a beleagured White House with no real popularity or credibility, mass confusion and a vulnerable populace is creating some semblance of a fan following.

For the most part, Bernie’s loss is Biden’s gain. As the only other horse in the Democratic race, Biden stands to gain from every follower and rally Bernie cannot hold. His centrist position has been thoroughly embraced by every other candidate’s followers. And as far as his campaign managers are concerned, every rally Biden doesn’t have to attend is a rally he can’t fuck up and say something stupid in. And every debate without a live audience is an audience that Bernie can’t steal with his charisma and populist charm. In fact, the Virus is practically Biden’s buddy right now. As VP to Obama – who presided over the last time the country was in the grips of mass panic – Biden’s campaign is getting a boost as undecided people previously attached to Obama now turn their backs on Trump and flock to a familiar, authoritative figure in the face of an unfamiliar threat.

In the end, of course, it all boils down to the popularity of the two candidates – Trump and whoever else the Dems pick. I’m okay with the choice being less than ideal and the choice being a Trump v. Other Guy because as Birmarck said, that’s just politics. I’m just sad that the Other Guy won’t be Bernie. Again.

Categories
Culture Indian politics Society

Into The -Woods: the Colourful Politics of Vernacular Cinema

So similar, yet each unique

Indian cinema, and Bollywood especially, has always been extremely political, not least because of the fact that cinema is a popular medium that needs to appeal to a critical mass of audiences before the artistes get paid. It’s not merely an economic equation, though. In my previous post, I took a historical view of what political issues India cinema chose to cover, and how they’ve changed over the years.

As much as the past is a guide to the present, movies are not merely the historical baggage of their industries. Contemporary Indian cinema varies from the nauseatingly bougie to the mundane, where class conflict, caste tensions and intergenerational culture wars vie for primacy. Indian cinema has had to wrestle with and try to rationalize larger social changes in a way that Hollywood has never felt the need to (except perhaps during the Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin era, when urban living, widespread poverty and social distress were important themes that every filmmaker had to contend with). Over the past 50-odd years, western cinema has undergone very little fundamental restructuring: the same studios call the shots and the same people (more or less) still watch movies. More fundamentally, the societies themselves have not had to deal with changes in family values, erosion of the cultural idea of purity, intercultural dialogue and technological progress in the same way that countries like India and China (and increasingly, Nigeria and Indonesia) have had to deal with.

As a result, Indian cinema is multilayered in a way that Hollywood can never be. Whereas all Hollywood movies are necessarily for a broad audience, India’s size and history of pluralism create the cultural and political space needed for several different industries to emerge. For example, while Bollywood – Hindi language cinema centered around Mumbai and Delhi – is still the de facto flagbearer of Indian cinema, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam cinema are all perfectly capable industries on their own – each of the these produces upwards of 200 movies per year.

This post deals with how these vernacular industries deal with issues of cultural change, progress, inclusion and class conflict. Specifically, I’m going to elaborate on the ideas of culture coding and jurisdiction as they relate to movies. My go-to industries of reference will be Bollywood and Kollywood, not because they’re the largest – although Bollywood definitely is – but because they’re the most representative of the two jurisdictions of cinema, viz. the national and the local. While discussing coding, though, I’m going to try to draw from as many industries as I can, because why not.

Obviously, this whole post is full of spoilers. It’s literally a post about movies, what’d you expect? But because I’m nice, here are all the movies that I will proceed to spoil to a greater or lesser degree:

  • Joker (2019)
  • Passion of the Christ (2004)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
  • Parasite (2019)
  • Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999)
  • Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)
  • Delhi Belly (2011)
  • The Full Monty (1997)
  • Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
  • Pedarayudu (1995)
  • Duniya (2007)
  • Thackeray (2020)
  • Pushpak (1987)
  • Jogi (2005)
  • Amruthadhare (2005)
  • Good Will Hunting (1997)
  • Visaranai (2015)
  • Ugly (2014)
  • Super Deluxe (2019)

Culture coding

In order to understand what I mean when I say that movies code culture, it’s first important to bear in mind that movies capture telltale pieces of location, scenery, accents, skin colours and spoken insults that build a world. Worldbuilding is why the Avengers movies succeeded, while DC’s attempt fell on its face and never woke up. As in the real world, most cinematic worlds also involve dog-whistling that’s expected to signal something to the viewer without saying it out loud.

For example, consider The Passion of The Christ (PoTCh). In this libcucks-go-fuck-yourselves Christian freakshow, Mel Gibson tries to imagine what went down when that one time around 30 AD Jesus Christ was captured by the Romans. Spoiler: he dies. But that’s not the point. The point of the movie is violence: more sepcifically, its antisemitism:

… fundamentally misconceives the relationship between the prefect, Pontius Pilate, and the Temple authorities led by Caiaphas. Caiaphas served at Rome’s pleasure. Yet the script shows him bullying Pontius Pilate with an amazing control of the Jewish mob. Pilate even states he fears Caiaphas is plotting a revolt. This is a total reversal of the historical reality of Judea under Roman rule.’ The scholars group remarked that ‘in the time of Jesus, Romans crucified those Jews they suspected of sedition routinely…. There is absolutely no evidence that crosses of any kind were built by Jews in the Temple.’

Another conclusion was that ‘dramatically, as the script stands, Jesus’ opponents are one-dimensional bad guys…. The film takes every opportunity to embellish the violence of the passion, thereby increasing the likelihood of an audience to be filled with outrage at those who perpetuated such a horrendous crime.’ The group added: ‘Viewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theater with the overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-loving Jews simply had an implacable hatred of Jesus.

A JCPA press release, link here

The fact that PoTCh got an R rating and would never be played on many family channels surprised nobody, least of all Mel. Because it was all a part of the world building. The world Mel was portraying was a violent, materialistic, faithless region where God could find no incorruptible mortal to reveal his words to. Hence, Jesus. There were two ways that Jesus’ story can be told: that of a compassionate man helping his fellow humans through a time of hardship and suffering; or that of a world of crazed lunatics in which common decency would be considered divine. Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was more of the former, since the movie’s list of advisors included a Jewish producer, historians, Biblical scholars, Islamic scholars, rabbis, imams and several other experts. Being the antisemite that he is, Mel of course chose the latter.

Filmmakers make such cultural choices very often, but only rarely are they purely because of their own inherent prejudices. More commonly, movies are an outlet for popular sentiment: for validation and recognition. When people watch movies, they don’t really see a Sylvester Stallone or a Salman Khan, they see themselves. When they see Iron Man defeating Thanos, they see themselves in that sweaty armour. And when Tony Stark dies, they see the loss and mourning as the mourning they would feel. I’m not saying that all movies are necessarily meant to reflect society, just that society gets out of it what it wants to. It’s “Death of the Author“, but for movies. “Death of the Director”, I suppose.

A popular filmmaker, therefore, is one who holds a mirror to the audience’s sense of self and shows it for what it is, even if it’s ugly. This mirroring of cultural cues in cinametic forms is what I’ve been calling culture coding. What the movie encodes is largely left to the writer/director, but there are three categories of markers that are key to our understanding of Indian cinema: class, language and location. So let’s go through them in that order.

Class struggle: hidden in plain sight

In 1848, Karl Marx wrote:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Karl Marx in Communist Manifesto

What was said of 19th century European society can also be said of modern Indian cinema. Nearly all of its myriad complexities arise out of simple class and power equations. So, I’ll dedicate most of this post to examining the role of class politics in shaping Indian cinema.

In the previous post, I gave a brief overview of the evolution of Indian cinema over the years. Central to that evolution was the development of the idea of a nation: it began as a unifying ideal that was open to everybody. Over time, as the nation and state fused into one, the state’s failures came to be seen as the nation’s fatal flaws. With that, the great Indian democratic experiment began to crack. These cracks were amplified when the newly liberalized India of 1992-99 created avenues by which the rich and connected could get even richer and connected-er. A resurgent nostalgic appreciation for ‘Indian culture’ led to the resurgence of Hindu transnationalist politics, as seen in Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). Here’s a brief overview for those of you unfamiliar with this timeless gem:

In the meanwhile, these activities combined with the state’s gratuitous rent-seeking created millions of new jobs, lifting millions of illiterate, poor and contented families into respectable positions. Like a mountaineer trekking to a viewpoint before making the summit climb, India’s new middle class stopped and gawped at how unbelievably close they were to being “upper-class”. As they looked up to the skies, they dreamt of better lives, of lives they saw the rich leading. Lives of largesse and promiscuity, lives where social rules and religious norms were merely vague guidelines that didn’t apply if you didn’t want them to. The life they were looking for finally arrived – in 2011. In the form of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, an aimless-walk-in-the-park kind of movie that is billed as a “coming of age” movie, but in reality, is just a petit-bourgeousie fantasy in which three friends roam around Europe for a few days and emerge entirely unchanged. It’s a movie whose central theme is the display of wealth and of unrepentant consumption, and whose women are not so much people as they are stand-ins for virtue, belief and restraint.

In Zoya Akhtar’s movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), three friends embark on a road trip that is in fact a journey toward globalization. While the trip is meant to partly cure Arjun, a stock trader, of his workaholism and is ostensibly a critique of India’s adoption of Western corporate culture and consumerism, Akhtar’s slick framing of Europe glamorizes a late-capitalist ideology by catering to a scopophilia of Westernized leisure that that ideology makes possible. She promotes images of travel and the pleasures associated with the Mediterranean (including carnivalesque festivals and uninhibited Western women). Immersing themselves in this romanticized Europe, the men set aside the ethical demands of their individual histories. The movie serves to highlight a new value system in Hindi cinema, a shift away from traditional norms to ones that align fluidly with the signs of a consumerist utopia in a multinationalized world.

Jayashree Kamble in this beautiful paper

There’s a scene in ZNMD in which the protagonist – a banker of some sort – takes a phone call while in a car with his friends, and one of them just casually flings his phone out of the car. Just like that. Who cares about the value of the phone and its contents to the guy, right? Who cares about the job? Who cares about anything? Being rich means that you never have to.

The scene in question.

MK Raghavendra sees the scene as being one with the new Bollywood mantra of creating characters who share a lifestyle more than language, geography or anything else. He cites Delhi Belly as the other example of this trend – a group of loafers who don’t work, and don’t really see the need to either. Friend whose only commonality is their shared easy-breezy lifestyle. Fascinating read.

Surely, that is a life worth living.

Looking east, and looking west

It makes sense here to pause and notice that class struggle is an almost universal theme across industries. While Hollywood mostly shies away from making any explicit statements about the link between class struggle and morality, British movies don’t. Classics like The Full Monty (1997) and This is England (2006) are masterclasses in worldbuilding where class struggle is ubiquitous to the point of inevitability. The Full Monty, especially:

[…] takes material that could would be at home in a sex comedy, and gives it gravity because of the desperation of the characters; we glimpse the home life of these men, who have literally been put on the shelf, and we see the wound to their pride. “The Full Monty” belongs in the recent tradition of bittersweet films from Britain that depict working- class life […] “The Full Monty” is about more than inventiveness in the face of unemployment. It’s about ordinary blokes insisting that their women regard them as men–job or no job.

Roger Ebert’s review

Since 2014, however, western audiences are much more attuned to this sort of class messaging. As a result, Hollywood too is increasingly open to class messaging. I would boldly state about 70% of this change is due to politics. Of that, a significant portion is due to the rise of Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s sharp critique of America’s irresponsible kleptocapitalism was lapped up by his fellow countrymen, and this unexpected popularity of a socialist message in America created an opening for other like-minded artistes and activists. While Bernie did not create socialism for the 21st century, he definitely amplified its message.

So, it’s no surprise that in 2019 (the eve of another presidential cycle) came two movies that made many many viewers deeply uncomfortable about the class structure of capitalistic societies. Parasite and Joker both have the same basic skeleton: society rewards the rich and unfairly punishes the poor for no fault of their own. They try to look at poverty as it exists in their respective countries of origin: South Korea and America, respectively. Both, predictably, arrive at the conclusion that rampant exploitation is to blame. And both put the blame on the rich, who’ve taken so much but always find ways to give back very little. They’re both equally compelling movies for trying times. Yet, their worldviews could not be more different.

Parasite shows class conflict from on high: a bunch of unkempt quasi-slaves whose lives only take shape and meaning from their masters. Their lives are messy, chaotic and comical. If they weren’t so damned poor, they could just as easily have been clowns. Funnily enough, Joker takes the opposite tack. The poor live lives of quiet misery; their lives are predictable and mundane, and the end result is painfully obvious from the first scene. Whereas Parasite sees poverty akin to a lottery, Joker sees it as a slow-moving trainwreck with only one possibility. Whereas Parasite is colourful, mischievous and playful in its delivery, Joker is bleak. Where one sees the possession of material goods as an end in itself, the other sees a whole Byzantine conspiracy preventing poor people from living lives of decency. Robin Hanson puts it best:

Parasite is done in a setting and style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more lower class perspective. Which is partly why upper class critics prefer Parasite.

Robin Hanson in Overcoming Bias

How class coding works

Upper-class discomfort with the themes in Joker is precisely why the initial pre-release reception was tepid at best, and why the movie didn’t win an Oscar despite being much better than Parasite. The snotty-nosed, Yale-educated litterateurs of white-collar media just couldn’t stomach a mainstream movie that captured class struggle in such a visceral fashion. They didn’t care that the source material was undeniably dark, or that its very popularity was a reminder for them to mend their ways. All they cared about was its monochromatic portrayal of upper class society, because that’s exactly what politics does: it frames everything around us in novel ways, so that you end up rethinking the mundane and unremarkable. A wonky wheel became a symbol of fascism, a green frog its renaissance, and an orange provocateur its ultimate form.

Similarly, class is coded into Indian movies as well. How do viewers know what the class being coded is? How does class decoding work? More often than not, viewers understand that an upper-class coded movie tends to not talk about it, whereas a lower-class coded movie tends to wear it on its sleeve. It’s kind of like how the rich kid in class can afford to try to pass off as a regular guy, whereas the poor kid generally can’t. The privilege of having privilege confers upon you the ability to mask it.

In other words, privilege is an honest marker of privilege. As stupid as it sounds at first, it’s useful to remember it when watching a movie. If it shows privilege, assumes it or speaks of privilege without addressing it, it tends to be upper-class coded. If it’s coy about it, tries to frame privilege as something you earn or as something that society confers upon you for your (unexplained) greatness, it’s either upper-class revisionism or it’s made for the aspirant or upwardly-mobile middle class. If the movie does none of the above but still doesn’t really show any scorn for the upper-class, it’s meant for the lower-middle class. On the other hand, a movie that sees poverty, doesn’t shy away from exposing the rotten roots of privilege and doesn’t try to hide its message in any sort of apologeticism is for the lower class.

Some examples

First, upper class coding in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). A very cliched, bland and typically Zoya Akhtar movie, it sees privilege and pokes lgiht-hearted fun at it, but doesn’t spend any time seriously examining it. The characters all drift in and out of focus as they try to figure out their purpose, while going on a cruise through some typically Mediterranean locales. With that much context, here’s an otherwise unremarkable scene that manages to code class pretty effectively.

Everything in the movie is a code. First, there’s the cruise. Who even goes on cruises? Most of the reason Indians go on cruises is to announce that they’re rich. No other reason. So, that’s a pretty strong code right there. But apart from the obvious, there’s the content itself: divorce. India, for all its pretences, is still a very very conservative country vis-a-vis family values. Divorces just aren’t a thing. When they do happen, on-screen divorces tend to be due to violence, affairs or some sor of dowry-related issue. All of those are rooted in Indian society’s historical problems of female disenfranchisement and insecurity. And more often than not, the locus of control is the man: it is the guy who broaches the topic, and it is he who decides if the divorce goes through. But this movie, and the above scene, are unusual in that the it’s the woman who’s in control: she decides that she doesn’t want to be with this guy anymore, and gets what she asks for. Even more unusual is the reason why; it’s not because he clobbered her face with a vase, or because he’d been sleeping with her mum. No. She wants a divorce because she deserves better.

That’s a level of female-empowerment that is still largely missing in Indian families. The only people who believe that women have just as much right to a happy marriage as men are upper-class Anglophone audiences. And that’s exactly whom the movie addresses.

Next, upper-class revisionism. We see this quite a lot in yesteryear movies, because the economic reality of the time didn’t allow for movies to show any markers other than those of wealth and caste. My favourite example of a very weird (and extremely cringey) intersection of these two is in Pedarayudu (1995). Specifically, this one scene.

This movie is one of several similar ones from the 1992-99 period – when India’s rising economic tide lifted all boats and thus came into direct conflict with the traditional caste system which mandated that some castes lead lives of austerity and deprivation. You have parallel themes in Bollywood blockbusters like Sooryavansham (1999) starring Amitabh Bachhan as the benevolent patriarch whose traditional values save a decadent family from losing sight of Hindu morality.

Here, the brown-shirted dude (“Pedarayudu”) commands deference because he and his father (and so on) are apparently the reason the guy in the suit is now a wealthy merchant who commands respect in society. Whereas the suit is a self-made man, the plainer looking guy is not. He’s merely held the position of village head, a hereditary position that he would like to pass on to his son some day (and eventually does). Yet, the dialogue shows that while material possessions wax and wane, what survives forever is your lineage and the word of God – of which your lineage is proof. So, the conclusion is that while wealth and accomplishment may place you in a higher class than that Brahmin/Thakur village elder, you will always be a social inferior by dint of your birth. That’s how upper-class revisionism works.

Finally, an example of lower class coding. This is kind of hard to find, partly because of issues of jurisdiction (which I’ll come to in a later section), but mostly just because there is no real Indie movie scene in India. So, any movie has to pass through several powerful people and institutions before it makes it to theatres. This kills any subversive themes, and whitewashes the movie of all substance, rendering it a toothless critique of class structure. While this is true of all industries, Bollywood suffers from this self-censorship more than regional language cinema. So, my pick for lower class coding is a scene from Duniya (2007), a movie that not only launched several careers but also inspired many imperfect imitators.

Ignoring the gratuitous violence and comically bad acting, the scene summarizes some key aspects city life from the eyes of a poor, unprivileged nobody. The crass language, unsophisticated mannerisms and inability to engage with higher classes are seen as central to the life of a poor person. When they do come in contact with power, the interactions tends to be violent and exploitative. Continued exposure to this kind of power breeds constant suspicion, numbness and complete apathy towards policemen, politicians etc. This scene, while imperfect, encapsulates what it takes to speak to lower classes in modern India.

Role of language: the medium is the message

So, yes, class is a killer theme for movies to explore but it doesn’t need to be packed and labelled as ‘class’ per se. India’s varied society offers filmmakers several options on how to go about it. As seen in the examples above, education is an easy wrapper. Another go-to is caste, which is by far the most efficient way to summarize class, status and education all in one. However, above caste and way beyond education is another useful carrier of class markers: language. But unlike class, depiction of language cannot be monolithic and homogenous because language cuts across social segments and carries its own history independent of the history of class struggle.

The politics of language is as old as humanity itself. Among the short list of things considered “uniquely human” is our ability to communicate complex ideas to each other in detailed, expressive ways. The exact origins of language are still up for debate, but what’s not being debated is the utility of language. We use it to express feelings, relay facts, store and alter information… If politics is even possible today, it is undoubtedly because of the unifying power of language. So it’s no surprise that in a country of over 30 major languages (at least a million speakers), popular politics is inextricably tied with language politics. To understand one is to wade waist-deep in the world of the other.

Consider this statement: the primary use of language is to act as a placeholder image that the audience can build upon. In some cases, the movie never moves past this “first impression” whereas in most cases, the writer then weaves in a story to humanize the character a bit more and gives the script some legs.

Let’s see some examples. The first is Nayakan (1987), for which casual readers of Indian political history may need a little detour and historical context. Skip ahead if you’re familiar with the story of Bombay’s uneasy acceptance of migrants.

A little detour

The movie shows a petty smuggler’s rise to power in 1980s Bombay. The movie is a curious intersection of the “underworld don” era of Indian cinema – 1970s to mid 90s – which I wrote about in the previous post, and the resurgence of Tamil identity politics in the late 80s.

Unlike most other states, Tamil Nadu has always been home to a rather progressive, urbanized and proud people. Icons such as Periyar and Karunanidhi were not only progressive, secular reformists but also staunch secessionists. Periyar famously railed against Brahminical orthodoxy of the time and called for the creation of a “Dravidian state”, to be called Dravidanadu, made up of the present regions of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with some debate about the latter. Periyar saw that these states were progressive, dominated by non-Brahminical people (although this has changed now) and were largely under the thumb of the Brahminical institutions imposed by what he called the “Indo-Aryans”, a reference to the polarizing debate around Aryan Invasion Hypothesis, which posits that somewhere around 3500 BCE, hoards of invaders from Iran (“Aryans”) started pillaging and settling into northern India, bringing with them their language (Sanskrit), culture (diety worship), religion (Hinduism, proto-Zoroastrianism) and practices such as wheat cultivation, horse rearing and archery.

The spread of the Steppe pastoralists and their descendants across ancient Eurasia. The Steppe population is identified here using the name Yamnaya which refers to an ancient archaeological culture on the Pontic Steppe. It is the Yamnaya people who spoke the a language which was the ancestor of every Indo-European language in existence today, be it Bhojpuri or Welsh. The arrows show plausible routes while the years refer to rough estimates of when the Yamnaya and their descendants arrived in a place. Source: Science

Around independence, questions started being raised about the structure of Indian states, which were drawn almost haphazardly by the British for the sake of administrative ease. Independent India resolved to reorganize states along linguistic lines, leading to protests by unionists and Hindu-Hindi nationalists (mostly from RSS) on the one hand who worried that this exercise would upset the delicate peace after Partition, and secessionists on the other, who wanted more than just linguistic states – they wanted the states to have near-complete autonomy in deciding their fate. This tension subsided during the late 60s and 70s, as the wily authoritarian Indira Gandhi found a way to stitch together convenient coalitions where she had political capital, and imprisoned dissenters where she didn’t. The end of Emergency, and the Hindu-pleaser PM Rajiv Gandhi allowed the political class to catch their breath after nearly a decade, leading to the resurgence of hitherto-suppressed ideas into a country that had burned through what little Gandhian spirit was left.

In the midst of all this strife was Bombay, India’s financial capital and the jewel in its admittedly mangy crown. Before Independence, Bombay was part of Bombay state, a Presidency ruled directly by the British crown. As a crown region, it included a melange of peoples from modern Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act split Bombay state into Karnataka and Maharashtra, with a further split occuring in 1960 as a result of the Mahagujarat movement which demanded a separate state for Gujarati-speaking people in Bombay state. This resulted in the creation of Gujarat, and the leftovers of Bombay (along with some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad) were rechristened Maharashtra, or “great nation”. Bombay was a point of contention, and in the resulting tug-of-war, Maharashtra won out. It kept Bombay but would forever harbour a deep wariness of “outsiders”.

After the passing of the States Reorganization Act of 1956, Bombay split into Maharashtra and Karnataka, largely along linguistic lines. In 1960, the Mahagujarat movement also forced the creation of Gujarat out of the leftovers.

Into this volatile state of affairs entered Bal Thackeray, a fearmongering populist with an especially strong hatred for the non-Marathi population of Bombay.

It’s impossible to understand the new leader of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without understanding his right-wing party’s cousin, the Shiv Sena. And it’s impossible to understand Shiv Sena — or for that matter, the city of Mumbai — without understanding the late Bal Thackeray

Aayush Soni in Ozy

Thackeray began his career as a regular writer and cartoonist. He forged his political career in the flames of the Maharashtra movement as it took shape in response to Mahagujarat. In 1966, he created Shiv Sena, an ethnonationalist party with a strongly Hindu background that puts regional identity before national ones, although recent whitewashing has made people forget this fact. This curious combination caused many clashes between Shiv Sena and the Hindu-nationalist RSS, its ideological parent and longtime frenemy. Over time, Shiv Sena’s violent hatred would consume everyone including Tamils, Kannadigas, Muslims, Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis. Even as the Shiv Sena now tries to wriggle out of this ideological corner that Thackeray has confined it to, it’s impossible for modern Mumbai to escape its association with this icon of Marathi identity.

Back on track

So it makes sense to also consider a recent biopic of Bal Thackeray, creatively titled “Thackeray” (2020). This movie was released in two languages – Hindi and Marathi (a fact we will return to while discussing jurisdictions), and below are the two trailers.

Thackeray – Hindi trailer
Thackeray – Marathi trailer. The infamous lungi comment is made around the 1:00 mark.

Notice that whereas the Hindi one is more artistic and romantic, the Marathi one is less wishy-washy and more explicitly antagonistic, with lines such as “Uthao lungi bajao pungi” (lift the lungi and fuck him), a reference to the ‘lungi‘, a skirt-like loincloth commonly worn by Tamil men. There are also references to ‘idli‘, a supremely tasty simple dish made of steamed rice flour and lentils, also common among Tamils and other South Indians. The Marathi trailer also explicitly shows stone-pelting at a “Udipi Coffee House”, a reference to cafes owned by outsiders from Udupi, a temple town in southwestern Karnataka. While the Hindi version is fairly blancmange in its depiction of Thackeray as a fairly ordinary religion-baiting populist, the Marathi one goes much further and shows Thackeray for the violent patriarch that he really was. In this lies the power and utility of regional languages – whereas a Hindi movie is necessarily meant for a diverse audience, the Marathi one isn’t, and so can focus its messaging better. Where a Hindi movie is a hammer, the Marathi one is an axe.

And so it is with Nayakan (1987), a wildly popular Tamil movie set in 1980s Mumbai, where relentless waves of anti-Tamil riots were threatening to cause widespread chaos. Elsewhere, Sri Lankan Tamils too were facing repression under the Sinhala government that refused to grant Tamils any political power. In 1976, several disparate allegiances coalesced under V. Prabhakaran the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers. The LTTE was a shot in the arm for a latent Indian Tamil identity movement, which was built from the ground-up by grassroots activists and nurtured by political godfathers like Karunanidhi and M.G. Ramachandran. Thus was created a political environment where Nayakan (“leader”, “lord” or “hero”) could have existed.

The beauty of piracy means that the full movie is now available on Youtube

The movie follows the rise to dominance of the adopted son of a Tamil-speaking Muslim man. One of the earliest scenes in the movie sets the stage for the coming confrontation between the Tamil migrants living in a filthy yet harmonious shantytown and corrupt, violent Hindi-speaking policemen exemplified by one Kelkar – himself a wink and a nod to Shiv Sena’s Marathi pride displacing millions of destitute Tamils from Mumbai. To this, we add the perception of the Indian unity experiment as having largely failed Tamils, who should have stuck to the demand for a separate Dravidanadu which could have governed itself well and prevented such large-scale squalour. So, Nayakan at once rebukes the ascendant Marathi sentiment while also thumbing its nose at the Indian nation-state, which has failed its duty and must now transfer power to extrajudicial vigilantes.

In Nayakan, a transfer of power from state to subaltern is achieved through a violent ritual battle between Velu and the Hindi-speaking inspector Kelkar. Kelkar is depicted as a cruel racist cop, described variously as mirugam / animal or kaattaan / barbarian, who terrorizes the migrant Tamil populace of the shantytown. If Nayakan exhibits a strong “preference for vigilante justice in the absence of the legitimate authority of the state”, according to Professor Gopalan, the ritual battle becomes a means of discrediting the state, delegitimizing the law, and empowering the subaltern.

Kumuthan Maderya in Popmatters

So, language is a crucial accelerator of the creation of a strong “imagined community”, a la Benedict Anderson. It serves to unite people under specific ideas and personalities while also acting as a bulwark against overarching national ideas that threaten to subsume regional identities within them. Its role in creating more focused communities within the Indian nation acts as a check against the excesses of demagoguery and jingoistic fervour. At the same time, divergent themes in vernacular cinema highlight that there is no monolithic “India”, and one community’s prosperity and pride seem to always lead to another’s poverty and predation.

Location, location, location

Our previous discussions of culture coding in terms of class and language have at their core the assumption that these are macro-identifiers capable of transmitting messages faithfully to all constituents within the group. But what if this isn’t necessarily true? What if class and language aren’t always enough to fully encode the cultural backdrop of a movie? What does a director do when she needs to narrow down her focus further without losing any class or language connections? She localizes the movie.

Giving a movie a specific location is oftentimes essential to the story itself. For example, Good Will Hunting (1997) could never work if it wasn’t set in Southie. Its examination of residual tensions between Irish-Catholics and Protestants is part of the imagined community that Will and Chuckie inhabit. Everything about the movie, from the colour palette to the drinking habits, is a constant reminder of Boston and its Irish immigrant population (even though the in-film “MIT” was actually University of Toronto).

As the car begins up the street with the four young men, the filmmakers insert a visual register which guides the progress of the film: the paint scheme of two homes on the left side of the street form the Irish flag. The first home adjacent to the car is large and green; the home across the street, which the car passes second, is smaller, and paint-ed white and orange. We later learn that the four men are Will Hunting (Matt Damon), Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), Morgan O’Mally (Casey Affleck), and Billy McBride (Cole Hauser). These four representthe Irish Catholic interests and culture in the film, and their metaphoric journey from Catholic South Boston into the Protestant north—portrayed by Cambridge—begins on this camera angle.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera in Revisioning Migration: On the Stratifications of Irish Boston in Good Will Hunting

Similarly, many Indian movies just don’t work without location markers. Take for example the masterful Pushpak (1987) written and directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. Pushpak is a standout example of what Indian directors can achieve when their hands aren’t tied by commercial interests alone. It’s entirely without dialogue, which meant that all cultural markers had to be conveyed visually only. This means that more often than not, the director had to place the characters in settings where either (A) the location did not matter, or (B) the location is obvious, or (C) the location is easily replacable by one that the audience could relate to. Try to figure out which category the scene below belongs in:

How about this one?

Pushpak is a masterclass in blending location cues into quotidian scenes without making it overbearing or restrictive. Yes, it has other cultural codes as well – most notably its slightly rose-tinted view of class struggle – but to the audience of 1987, Pushpak’s location was unmistakable. Bangalore was a symbol of aspiration and sophistication. It wasn’t Bombay where only the most cutthroat survived, or Delhi where being politically connected was a prerequisite to success. Bangalore in the late 80s was the symbol of a gentrified, urbane city where you could rise to the top with just hardwork and dedication. All the location markers used in Pushpak point to this – from the Windsor Manor hotel where the above scene was shot to Commercial Street where the shopping scenes are set, Pushpak uses Bangalore to make a statement about the characters and therefore, of the audience. There are no crass song and dance sequences or over-the-top fight scenes that go on forever. Pushpak uses its location to make the audience feel good while entertaining without any of the frills commonly associated with Indian cinema.

But once again, Tamil cinema shows alternative ways to use location. Visaranai (2015) and Super Deluxe (2019) both use explicit location cues as part of a signalling strategy. Visaranai (“interrogation”) uses the age-old trope of Tamil oppression at the hands of Telugu overlords, but unlike Nayakan, instead of traversing an extended period, it almost freezes the movie in time and focusses on the goings-on around the interrogation of one group of men. The movie aims to lay bare the brutality of policemen towards migrant labourers but instead produces a jarring look at law enforcement in India in general.

Super Deluxe instead uses location almost nonchalantly, as if the locations of the characters don’t matter at all, except that if you’ve watched the movie (MAJOR SPOILER!) you know it really does in the end – it turns out that all the characters in the movie inhabit the same middle-class locality. Yes, there are other culture codes like caste politics (there are pictures of Ambedkar all over the movie), institutionalised violence, the consumption of porn in modern India etc., but those are all intertwined in the location. Using the cues in the movie alone, we can try to pinpoint where it’s located. So what are the cues we’re given? Here’s a few:

  1. Tamil boards everywhere
  2. Moderately-populated areas
  3. Low-cost housing
  4. Presence of a Marwari trading community
  5. Presence of a prominent film industry that employs
  6. Vast amounts of flat, empty land previously used for industrial purposes

You can almost immediately tell that the movie is based around suburban Chennai, possibly some of the northern parts like Manali or Ennore. Simple cues like the ones above are generally enough to know where the characters are located, and good directors always find a way to use the location effectively. Anurag Kashyap uses Mumbai’s various faces to great effect in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Ugly (2014), with the latter intertwining location markers with cultural codes like police brutality, mob justice, vulnerability of women and children, juxtaposed with an apathetic urban population’s “arrey yaar, there’s always some drama going on” attitude towards your neighbours.

Whereas class and language are broad-based and used to express sympathies or solidarity, location offers filmmakers something else, something more. It lets them use society to make a statement about society. I began with the statement that popular filmmakers hold a mirror to society and show it for what it is. That mirror is location, with class and language acting as the frame holding it together and giving it shape and maneuverability.

Jurisdictions of cinema

So, you may now agree, cinemas serve a political purpose and a cultural one. But that’s only the message and medium. What about the people watchign the movie whom it aims to inform or influence? This amorphous entity I call “jurisdiction“.

The audience of a movie is not the same as its jurisdiction. To consider why, let’s go back to the example of Thackeray. I noted briefly that the movie was released in two languages: Hindi and Marathi, with each getting a trailer that is markedly different from the other. Whereas the Hindi one is more artistic, the Marathi one is rougher, plainer, more honest. So, in reality, there is no single Thackeray: there are two entirely different ones. There’s the populist one made for national audiences, and the more pointed one for local audiences. These separate spheres of influence form the two dominant jurisdictions of Indian cinema. The national jurisdiction is broader and has largely convergent themes of Hindu orthodoxy, upper-class apologeticism, modernity and the irrelevance of regional boundaries. The local jurisdiction is narrower and has special quirks that make sure that each local jurisdiction diverges markedly from the other. Across local jurisdictions, identities are rigid and sticky whereas within each one, these same identities can be quite fluid and open to interpretation.

Language is, once again, the primary basis for the formation of local jurisdictions. In both trailers of Thackeray, the lead actor does not utter a single word in English, even though a supermajority of Indians would struggle to complete a sentence without using at least one word from English. In other words, Thackeray’s speech is an anachronism that serves to elevate the speaker to a higher level than the regular politician. In Super Deluxe, the language being used is not Tamil; it’s a very realistic amalgam of Tamil and English that’s the lingua franca of most urban Tamils. Delhi Belly (2011) barely uses any proper Hindi: instead, it’s almost entirely in Hinglish, an urban blend of Hindi interspersed with English. Most of rural India uses words that native speakers from urban India don’t understand at all. Likewise, urban India’s weird mix of English and vernacular is endlessly mocked by rural, “less sophisticated” people.

In the previous post, I spoke about how Salman Khan is almost the perfect foil to Shah Rukh Khan’s sophisticated, urbane Indian. This is all it boils down to: whereas SRK speaks to the national jurisdiction, Salman Khan speaks to the local. Their successes also remind us of something else: these two spheres aren’t necessarily opposed to each other, or unequal in any way. In most parts of India, movies are made to appeal to local and national sensibilities, and – all things being equal – both have the same potential to succeed.

Let’s consider for example the year 2005 in Kannada cinema. On the one hand, you had a clear local movie, Jogi, that was just the most perfect distillation of everything wrong with mainstream Kannada industry and its lionization of extrajudicial violence. It enjoyed a great amount of popularity in rural areas since it was seen as speaking to a local population about the corruption in cities, value of remembering your roots, respecting your mother, staying humble and all that commie jazz. Of course, most urban audiences disliked the movie, since they’d already moved away from graphic violence and were trying to embrace a more cosmopolitan filmography. Around the same time was released Amruthadhare, a very obviously national movie that tried to place marriage and traditional family values within the context of a modern India. While the language restricted its audience, there was no reason why Amruthadhare could not have been dubbed into Hindi, Tamil, Assamese or any other language without losing its cultural relevance. While Jogi spoke of specific and local issues like losing ones mother and not having enough to bury her properly, Amruthadhare picked up broader cultural issues which would not have appealed to rural audiences that were still grappling with lower-level issues.

To conclude, outsiders and pan-India urban audiences tend to be influenced by national movies, and rural and/or lower-class audiences tend to be influenced by local movies, and these two form two independent, overlapping and perfectly compatible spheres of influences that I will continue to call jurisdictions.

Thank you for your patience.

Categories
Culture Indian politics

The Unappreciated Politics at the Heart of Every Indian Movie

Movies are a huge part of Indian society. When I was a kid, movies were part of the tacit agreement between my grandfather and I: he would take me to one or two every weekend that I was staying with him, and in return I would safeguard some of his dirty little secrets. I got to share some of the snacks he got (roasted sunflower seeds, salted peanuts, popcorn and the such), even though there were some snacks that were off-limits (ice cream, soda, etc.) Overall, though, it was a fantastic deal.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Indian filmmakers have been some of the most active innovators in pushing the limits of the medium. International acclaim notwithstanding, Indian cinema has produced some undeniable masters of the art like Satyajit Ray, Girish Karnad and K Balachander. Several prominent political leaders have built virtual empires out of a start in film and theatre: think NT Rama Rao, MG Ramachandran, Prithviraj Kapoor etc.

Yet, despite its colourful history, there’s this notion that Indian cinema and politics are (or ought to be) separate. As if politics has never been an issue that Indian cinema has taken up and should thus be left out of the narrative. There’s a strong and persistent effort to make it seem like they they are just spectacles of colour, gaudy visuals, tasteless songs and crass humour. We see this in the recent uproar over CAA-NRC, which a number of filmmakers and actors have publicly opposed and protested against. Actors’ personal stance on politics have now become grounds for the public to reject movies and condemn them to failure.

My estimation is that this idea is false, both historically and contemporaneously. Furthermore, it stands to no level of scrutiny whatsoever. This post is my attempt to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Indian movies have never been far away from the politics of the day. To do this, I’ll be looking at the statement “Indian movies are heavily influenced by politics” from three different angles: geography, culture and history. Most of the sources in this post are from works and articles by MK Raghavendra; specifically from bits and pieces of ‘Bollywood‘, ‘Bipolar Identities’ (I haven’t read either, but I’ve managed to skim through them enough to get the gist of his argument). Stay with me throughout the text or skip to whichever section you find interesting. As a token of gratitude, I’ll also present some movie recommendations at the end.

But first I need to introduce to you … you: the moviegoer.

Supply and Demand

The Indian movie industry is vast: it employs upwards of 250,000 people, produces well over 1600 movies and rakes in over a billion dollars in documented revenue annually. The real revenue it generates is far in excess of this paltry number, since Bollywood has long been a known conduit for money laundering operators, especially the Mumbai mafia (colloquially known as the “underworld”). In fact, during the ’70s and ’80s, it was quite common for the mafia to hobnob with the rich and famous and bankroll blockbusters with absolutely no issues at all. Haji Mastan – one of India’s most well-regarded producers – is one of the most visible relics of that bygone era (read this article for a brief look into this love affair between Bollywood and the mafia).

Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Deewaar was based loosely on Haji Mastan’s life as a gangster. It would go on to become one of Bachchan’s most popular movies

Today, though, the picture is slightly different. Although the involvement of the underworld is quite well-known and continues quite unabated, it tends to be less overt and has mostly been substituted by entities from the political class, who see the movies as a sort of secondary income stream that they can bank on when not in office. For many art movies and movies that end up going straight from film festival to obscurity, the production cycle therefore begins and ends in the same place: a state-funded institute such as the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. From time to time, some end up being played on some Doordarshan channels, and absolutely nobody watches them. Because of funding pressures, these movies are intensely political because they are made by the political class for the sake of the political class.

Consider for example, the (fugly) website of the Films Division of the Indian government. As you click around, you realize that this is an organization with a strong Mumbai-centric view of Indian cinema: scrolling through the catalogue confirms this suspicion: there are several hundred dedicated to life in Mumbai, Hindi movies over the years, promotion of the Hindi language (there’s a whole category called ‘Hindi Promotional’) and hundred and hundreds of movies on Gandhi. We also find some movies on Bose, a couple on Savarkar and the Hindu right, a few on “South Indian cinema” and reams and reams of news videos (mostly from foreign sources). The catalogue is a reflection of how the political class sees cinema: a record of important events, an outlet for policy priorities, and a repository of ideas to be preserved for future generations. It is also a reflection of the underlying political purpose of Indian cinema: assimilation of the various Indian peoples under a broad Hindu-Hindi umbrella.

Although not produced by the state, Pardes is a good example of the Hindu-Hindi message suffused into Indian cinema. Ghai is also a known political actor with a filmography that can be gently described as “middle-class conservative Hindu”

So, art cinema and niche cinema is intensely political. But that’s not what most people mean when they talk about movies. They mostly mean popular cinema that you watch in cinema halls and on (non-DD) TV channels. Here, it makes sense to further separate the two major groupings that make up the audience: urban audiences and rural audiences. Some regional peculiarities aside, in the largest metros Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, movie audiences tend to be more or less the same and can be studied as one bloc. Rural audiences, however, are vastly different across states, geographies and religious communities. For example, a Tamil Muslim audience has a vastly different worldview to a Marathi Muslim one. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll split “rural” movies along linguistic lines.

So, with the outline all figured out, let’s start with the most prolific and popular: mainstream Bollywood.

Bollywood and the art of class warfare

In order to understand Bollywood, it’s useful first to understand briefly the idea of “nationalism”. In order to do that, we need an idea of what it means for a group of people to become a “nation”. Benedict Anderson in “Imagined Communities” argues that nations are essentially self-declared political entities where every person feels that they belong to that group. In other words, a nation is an imagined community that is limited in its extent and membership, sovereign in its ability to handle its affairs, and shared among the members. A state, on the other hand (according to Bodin and Hobbes), is an entity that has a monopoly over violence and law-making. In contrast with nations, states are real – you don’t need to imagine India to be subject to its laws. The most powerful entities emerge when the idea of a nation coincides with a state actor: a “nation-state“. Most countries such as India, USA, Russia etc. are nation-states. The Irish nation, however, extends across the states of Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Within Russia, we find the nations of Tatarstan and Chechnya; but they don’t qualify as nation-states since they do not have full control over their affairs and Russia has the final say in most matters. India the state was created by the British over the course of the 19th century, but before India could break free of British domination, it had to become a nation. And that is where movies came in.

Since its inception, “Bollywood” has always played a vital role in nation-building. Before independence, Bollywood movies were filled to the brim with messages of the need for patriotism, valour and bravery. The need of the hour was to construct a national identity out of a vast number of disparate states and territories that had very little in common with each other. Writers such as Kavi Pradeep courted arrest and state pressure by using movies and songs to draw support towards the emerging freedom struggle. For example, at the peak of the Quit India Movement in 1943, an arrest warrant was issued against him for lyrics in the song ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo’ from the movie Kismet. The lines in question are:

Aaj Himalay ki choti se phir ham ne lalkaaraa hai

Door hato

Door hato

Door hato ai duniya waalon Hindustan humara hai

(Today we have declared from the Himalayas

Go away

Go away

Go away, Hindustan is ours)

Kavi Pradeep, ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo‘ from Kismet
The song ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo‘ from Kismet earned Kavi Pradeep an arrest warrant and he went into hiding for a month, waiting for the controversy to die down

The father of the nation, though, remained unconvinced. In interviews with the BBC and NYT, Gandhi was unambiguous in his view that cinema had nothing of value to offer the Indian public. However, his more pragmatic protege – Jawaharlal Nehru – was acutely aware of its potential as a unifying tool. When India gained inpendence from the British in 1947, Nehru made movies a key part of his popular outreach (a strategy that would be used by his daughter Indira during her reign from the late ’70s to early ’80s). It wasn’t just Nehru; wartime communication had taught world leaders that movies and radio were great tools of propaganda. None were more acutely of this than the USSR. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union felt the need to censor all subversive media, one of the first things to be banned was possession of Hollywood movies. But people need entertainment, and the Soviets saw this as an opportunity to push an anti-capitalist sentiment on its subjects. So, Bollywood was offered as the most benign, Catholic and infinitely more desirable alternative to Hollywood. Personalities such as Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt and Nargis were not just celebrities, they were also cultural ambassadors who conducted what’s come to be called “soft-diplomacy”, helping bridge the gap between India and the Soviet Union through song and dance.

By the late ’70s, Bollywood was an expected part of growing up in the Soviet sphere. To anybody with even a cursory understanding of 20th century geopolitics, it’s obvious why: from independence in 1947 right until the liberalizing market reforms of late ’80s and early ’90s, India was an intensely socialistic country that had quite openly rejected the American predatory-capitalist economic model. While most Indians may have been ambivalent about the capitalism-socialism debate, the state was not. The exemplary lives of Vinobha Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi and JP had lent some moral weight to simple choices such as cleanliness, simple living and personal freedom. The Indian state impressed these ideals upon the nation by using movies and books to drill the need for fraternity, charity, frugality and inclusivity in all social spheres. The widespread popularity of socialist values is precisely why we see the flood of movies with Marxist-socialist themes in the decades before 1991.

But the immense popularity of mid-century movies such as ‘Awaara’ cannot be explained in terms of outside support alone. Often, these movies were popular precisely because they acted as an outlet for the zeitgeist, allowing the masses to contextualize, verbalise and better articulate their reality. In other words, they were creating imagined communities or shared publics that viewers could then inhabit and communicate with.

Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awaara’ is a perfect embodiment of what made Bollywood an invisible arm of the Indian nation’s struggles, dreams and aspirations.

‘Awaara’ contains many elements of the quintessential mass-appeal Bollywood movie, so it’s worthwhile to articulate them properly. The movie follows a budding romance between a poor thief and a rich and well-meaning – but somewhat naive – heroine. Briefly, here’s the sparknotes version. The moral messaging is not even subtle:

  • Everybody’s created equal and is fundamentally the same in terms of joys, sorrows, shame, biases and inner conflict
  • Poor people are poor only due to the circumstances of their birth, and if only the rich shared their wealth more, there wouldn’t be so much desperation in the world
  • Everybody has a right to fair trial and a life of dignity
  • The court is an impartial entity that provides justice, regardless of a person’s ability to access it; but bad actors sometimes derail the process by relying too much on biases and prejudices

All of these are a reflection of independent India’s new democratic norms as dictated by a generation of erudite, anglophone Oxbridge leaders such as Nehru, Gandhi, Menon and Ambedkar who valued the primacy of the individual and wanted the Indian state to use its authority to educate the masses and reform society through impartial, sacrosanct institutions such as courts of law. Seen in the context of contemporary politics, ‘Awaara’ is an intensely socialistic movie that argues for people to set aside their prejudices and be more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. In pre-1992 Indian cinema, such motifs of equality, tolerance and smiling through struggle are everywhere. These motifs, in turn, produced a popular sentiment that valued poor underdogs, honest cops, charitable zamindars and benevolent dictators (a legacy of Indira Gandhi’s stranglehold over the Indian psyche).

The 1970s and 80s saw the reshaping of these ideals to fit a modern age: an age of gangster capitalism where stealing from your fellow man was the only way left to survive. A persistent “Hindu rate of growth” had created a painful shortage of things that India has no paucity of: food, skilled labour and hope. This was the peak of the “angry yound man” phase of Bollywood, where the restless protagonist raged against a system that no longer provided what he was promised, and constantly finds ways to undermine his worth. So, denied the right to a decent life, he takes a life. Denied a right to livelihood, he robs people. Denied a job, he makes his own: of conning people, robbing them and smuggling things he is not allowed to legally move. The state’s rules and restrictions around what is and is not allowed leeches into every part of society, and creates a whole new genre: the crime drama.

‘Sholay’ encapsulates the latent rage of the ’70s and ’80s in India

But in 1991, everything changed.

1991: The birth of the middle class

In 1991, as the Soviet Union descended into infighting and fragmented into a dozen new nations, India opened up its markets to Western firms. Althought the process had been going on in fits and starts since 1986, it really took shape in 1991 in the shadow of the balance of payments crisis. Under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the Indian government at the time went all in on long-pending market reforms. Business conditions were relaxed, key sectors opened up to private players, “Licence Raj” was abolished, export-import systematized and a vast bureaucracy was created to feed the aspirations of an emergent Indian middle class. Modern India was created. The impact on Bollywood was akin to a sugar-rush. As millions of new jobs opened up in the public sector and the private sector was energized like never before, the Indian populace forgot the principles of socialism, and got high on capitalism. A growing interest in Indian products, places and services (yoga, meditation, ayurveda etc.) upended social contracts prioritizing Gandhian ideals like redistribution, charity and humility.

It also brought more revenue, both in amount and in variety. As a result, the patrons of Bollywood were no longer the humble, huddled masses in UP or Bihar. They were increasingly to be found in Bombay, Poona and Madras. Starting in 1992 and continuing to the present day, Bollywood’s political compass took a sharp turn to the right. It decided that it was done pandering to the poor and would instead take a more militant approach towards their role in society. Where pre-1992 Bollywood emphasized equality and opportunity, post-1992 Bollywood spoke of utility, consumption and stratification. It glorified the acquisition of wealth, and began a process of undermining social institutions such as courts, police and bureaucracies that’s had a devastating effect on their perceived legitimacy while also lowering the standard they’re expected to live up to. (This is an idea I’ll revisit in some future post, but for now suffice it to say that the idea of the Indian nation was beginning to unravel a bit.)

In its place was inserted a sort of postnational, transcendental identity that sought to revive a long-lost Vedic ethos and bring it back to the centre of Indian thinking. These seemingly innocuous social conditions also led to the birth of neo-spiritualist organizations such as “The Art of Living” and “Isha Foundation” that sought to strip Hindu religious practice of its external religiosity while preserving the spiritual core. Part of this process was purely incidental: India was opening up and the opportunities brought foreign ideas and institutions into a conservative and aloof country. A large chunk was, however, entirely political: the statist Congress had read the writing on the wall and agreed to loosen market regulations, and by doing so had created the pirticular conditions for antistatist parties from the right – BJP, Shiv Sena etc. – to thrive. The emergent right churned out movies glorifying “desi culture” and repackaging old wives’ tales as heroic patriotic acts.

The archetypal post-1992 movie actually came out very early on: in 1996, in fact. When ”Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” came out, it shook the industry’s conception of where its audience was and what their aspirations were. The movie was so popular that for several years, new movie halls opened up in every small town and village just to play this one movie. It has been argued that the movie singlehandedly shifted the trajectory of Bollywood rightward, and led to an avalanche of pseudointellectual Hindu apologisms all using variations of the same tropes:

  • Indian culture = Upper-class Hindu culture (vegetarian, Ram-Sita worshipping, chaste, etc.)
  • Indian culture is superior to any other culture out there (even ones that are materially better off, like USA or UK)
  • Respect for elders is of utmost importance
  • Divorce is immoral and Western culture has been debased by indulgent men and women who marry people of their own volition
  • God decides how much money a person gets to have, so possession and accumulation of wealth is an indicator of piety. So, rich, upper-class people are paragons of morality and wisdom who must be obeyed at all costs
  • Superstition is okay as long as you say “science doesn’t know the answer to everything”
  • The ideal Indian-American family does not assimilate at all: they have a puja room, eat Indian food 3 times per diem, celebrate diwali every other day and harass white women when given the tiniest opportunity
  • Indians often forget how great their culture is, and must be reminded by the twice-born hero, who too was once seduced by allure of the West, but gave it up to be with his family and marry the girl they chose for him
  • Cool people wear shades indoors, play basketball, double-dribble like they’re having a seizure and have an indecipherable accent

Here, it makes sense to take a small detour and examine the explosion of country music. Country music was actually not popular at all when a majority of Americans still lived in the country; it took development and mass migration into cities before “country” went from mildly-offensive to nostalgic. Similarly, development and secularism brought awareness and heightened pride, which fed a feeling of nostalgia, that then created the necessary political economy for many Indians to revert to their Hindu roots. DDLJ practically created the classic Yash Chopra-Karan Johar stereotype of the sanskaari family. The movie, and more of its like (Dil to Pagal Hai, Pardes, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Naa Ho), were released at the same time that the BJP went from a two-bit regional player in central India to holding power for a full term in 1999-2004. The Hindu right was not only responsible for propping up the whole conservative faction in Indian politics, it also made cultural space for the idea of a spiritualist supranation that extended far beyond the country’s borders.

In doing so, these movies acted as a sort of homecoming for scores of non-resident Indians (NRIs), who could now call themselves Indian without any of the actual poverty, pollution, discrimination or misery of actually living in India. In a sense, Bollywood in the 90s gave a face to the metropolitan, modern Indian diaspora of the new millennium. And it was the youthful, cherubic visage of Shah Rukh Khan in his various incarnations as Raj, Rahul or Karan.

And he wasn’t the only Khan around.

The two Khans

In the midst of all this, the silent majority remained intact: scores of rural, Hindi-speaking youth migrated from villages to towns in search of jobs and a better life. The space vacated by emigrating upper-class Indians was quickly filled by a vast and growing wave from the inner reaches of the country where decades of development had failed to percolate. Villages where the panchayat was supreme and schools failed their tests were now centers of untapped political power; dusty, unpaved roads that led to unnamed villages living with prejudices that urban (and urbane) India tried to pretend had never existed. Soon, these communities found their political voice. After years of thumb-twiddling, the Mandal Commission’s recommendations were finally enacted, guaranteeing OBCs quotas in government jobs. The Act did more than just revolutionize politics: it brought the promise of power and jobs to those communities that had been denied them for millennia. The new millennium looked like a new dawn for India.

But there was a catch: in order to access that power, they had to hold on to their identities, for the selfsame caste and religious identities that formed the backbone of oppression now formed the basis of opportunity. This uniquely Indian contradiction was to be the basis of a new and revived polity that took pride in regional identities, did not care for English (except when they did) and wanted nothing more than to be seen and heard. They would no longer be mere sidekicks and punchlines: they were heroes in their own right. Proud, sturdy and garish heroes that were together more important than the suave, educated, smooth-talking, English-speaking urban elite.

In other words, the re-enfranchisement of rural India that brought to power people like Lalu Yadav and Deve Gowda also created Sallubhai.

If you’re feeling dizzy, I don’t blame you. We just sped through 60 years of Indian politics through the lens of Bollywood and the urban-rural divide. But it’d be disingenuous of me to suggest that the urban-rural divide is the only political rift playing out in Indian cinema. In my opinion, there’s at least one more essential factor to be considered here.

In the next part of this series (out next week, hopefully), we’ll examine the questions: why are Bollywood films so recognizably different from Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada films? And why are they so different from each other?

The answer, of course, is politics. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Categories
Culture Indian politics Politics

A 2020 Guide to Talking Politics at the Dinner Table

It’s a new year, but it’s the same old shit. As usual, the world is burning in more ways than one, people are dying of entirely preventable causes, there’s a war in the Middle East, and on top of all that, there’s widespread discontent over our society’s treatment of women, minorities and economically weaker sections.

Inside, outside and all over everything – like sand at the end of a day at the beach -there’s politics. As MAGA culture competes with woke culture for primacy in the public sphere, it seems that we simply cannot avoid politics anymore. The class of people who say they’re “just not that political” appears to have disappeared entirely. In its place, we have a bold, militant and confident populace that seems to know the answer to every question, and a solution to every problem. Like an obese guy on an imbalanced diet of pure fat and sugars, many of us have unwittingly foregone a balanced news media diet, choosing instead to rely on Facebook and Whatsapp for all our information. While the exact ramifications of this shift will take a few years to unfold, what’s abundantly clear is that family dinners and social gatherings are now infinitely more contentious and uncomfortable. Nobody is willing to give an inch because we no longer share the same “undisputable facts” from which we can all agree to diverge.

The earth’s a sphere? Nope, fake news. Humans evolved from apelike creatures? That’s an opinion; not fact. Vaccines are the best thing ever? Think again. Climate change is real and is wiping out animals at an unprecedented rate? Debatable. Propositions that could easily be dismissed as “conspiracy theories” have been legitimized, propagated and amplified by world leaders who see them as immutable facts. As a consequence, public discourse has worsened, and disagreements go in endless circles, with each side seemingly chasing the other down an endless loop of Penrose stairs. More importantly, we’re starting to realize that the men and women we grew up around, looked up to and loved are really not great people.

In fact, some of them are just assholes. Remember that uncle you thought was nice because he got you candy from whichever country he was travelling to? Well, turns out he’s racist and thinks people trying to sneak across the border should be shot at sight. Your own father, who taught you to respect everybody regardless of their religion, skin colour or gender? He’s now a zealot cheering for every populist who vows to get rid of everybody who doesn’t look like him. Your distant relative who only shows up to weddings and always has the wildest, more fantastic stories to tell? He’s a literal Nazi.

This guide is for navigating conversations with these people. More generally, it is to allow you to cut through fluff and understand the heart of the matter without getting sucked into the argument.

OK, let’s do this.

Don’t try to avoid confrontation

This is the first and most important thing to do. If you try to avoid conflict by hanging around the potted plants, slinking out of arguments or just staring at your food without eating any, you will be spotted and called out. Some people (myself included) enjoy arguments, and some others also enjoy getting a rise out of people and making them feel uncomfortable. You know the type. That guy who wears a MAGA hat to a environmental event. By avoiding these people, you’re paradoxically making it more likely that they’re going to find you and confront you. So, don’t.

Always begin with a statement 90% people will have no problems with

For example: “such a shame that Australia is burning and the PM is away on a holiday in Hawaii. What an asshole.”

This does two things: first, shows that you mean well and allows you to break the ice fairly easily; second, you get to gauge the reactions from the crowd and see who the wackos are so you can focus on them. You can now be confident that not everybody hates you right off the bat.

The responses to the above example should ideally be some combination of “hmm, yes”, “I can’t believe his insensitivity”, “I’m sure he has some other competent person taking care of the fire, but it’s certainly not a good look”. The wackos will say something like “NO! That is NOT true! ScoMo is a genius who can direct his people from far away”, or may even jump the gun and say “wildfires are perfectly common in Australia in the dry season. It’s only the environmentally-conscious, bamboo-socks-wearing SJW libcucks who are whining about it.”

Resist the urge to say “OK, boomer!” because you are better than that.

Ask. Ask. Ask.

This is something I like to do, but I understand that it doesn’t always work, and takes a bit of patience to fully bear fruit.

Once you’re managed to get a feel for who the truly weird ones are, make a mental note of it. Then, begin asking them questions to help clarify their stance on the matter. After they’re done answering one question, ask them another follow-up question. Then another, then another. But keep in mind that you’re not trying to argue with them. Not yet. So, don’t state your opinions on the matter too clearly and try to stick as closely as you can to the question-answer-followup-answer-question […] format. Typically, you will want to frame questions in the following ways:

  • What do you think about <recent controversial event related to the argument at hand>?
  • Why do you think that?
  • Oh, is that an actual quote?
  • Where did you read/watch/hear that?
  • Do you have any personal experience of that?
  • Do experts in that field agree?
  • How do you know?
  • How come?
  • I have a friend who thinks <slightly weaker formulation of their view>. Do you think that’s true?
  • I read somewhere that <much stronger formulation of their view>. But that seems too extreme, right?
  • So, if you believe <statement A> and <statement B>, does that mean you also think <statement C>?
  • Am I correct in assuming that you also think <related statement other people generally make>?

While asking these questions, bear in mind that you’re not interrogating them, and nobody likes to feel like they’re being interrogated. So, try to keep things jovial and throw in a joke or two here and there (unless you don’t mind getting into screaming contests, in which case I suggest you go for it.)

If your adversary is a noob, they’d have tripped over themselves a few times already and said a few patently wrong/wildly offensive/absurd/contradictory things. When they do, call them out on it. If you are still trying to avoid conflict, you can just ask them if that’s contradictory and wait for a response.

Another pro tip here: follow this Q&A format when talking to someone you don’t entirely agree with. Who knows, their reasoning may just end up changing your mind.

Know the difference between “fact”, “opinion” and “belief”

Practically everybody knows the difference between fact and opinion. So, why do we still fight over what’s a fact and what’s an opinion?

The way I see it, a fact has to be more-or-less universally agreed upon to be of any value in an argument. If you’re bringing a statement to the table, it needs to be a “fact” to avoid spawning side-arguments about the legitimacy, sources, reasoning etc.

For example, “the earth is a sphere” could be considered a fact (until recently). However, “two out of three marriages end in a divorce” is not a fact. That’s because while the former statement is true regardless of when and where you make the statement, the latter is not. The statement “two out of three marriages end in a divorce” may be true in the USA at a given time, based on information from a certain website/data provider and for a specific time frame. It is NOT universally true: if you’re trying to have an argument about the legitimacy of marriage as an institution, it is completely unhelpful to make such broad claims because that’s asking for recursive side-arguments.

At an abstract level, practically everything we say is an opinion. That holds in arguments as well: you can make the wildest claims you feel like making because you’re entitled to an opinion. You can support your opinion and strengthen it by invoking famous personalities, scientific sources or popular media. However, that doesn’t necessarily make your opinion an “informed opinion” because:

  • Your reasoning may not be watertight
  • You may just have one source or nobody really believes your sources
  • You made a logical leap that your audience did not follow
  • Your predictions don’t make sense
  • There’s not much to be gained either way

So, whenever you argue based on facts, take care to mentally distinguish between solid facts, opinion and informed opinion. Separate them and build arguments using mostly facts and informed opinions. Try to avoid stating empty opinion.

Slightly apart from the above categorization of fact and opinion is “ideology”. Ideology is a set of governing principles or beliefs that you use to organize, structure and reconcile opinions. It may be fact-based, but doesn’t need to be. Ideology is the third key element of political thinking that people often forget. Disagreements about ideology are why some arguments can go on for hours without ever reaching a conclusion. For example, the opinion “people should be able to say whatever they feel like” is built around the beliefs that:

  1. expression is a fundamental right,
  2. people should be guaranteed a set of basic rights,
  3. everybody should be guaranteed the same set of basic rights, and
  4. individuals should be able to enjoy their rights however they see fit

Unlike opinions, beliefs are impervious to logical argumentation. For example, if I believe very strongly that humans are created unequal and therefore cannot be treated equally, how will you convince me using logic? Logic is inferior to beliefs because a logical system itself derives from some set beliefs about the importance of cohesion, the necessity to avoid contradiction etc. So, when your argument drills through layers of fact and opinion to finally strike a belief, know that you’ve gone as far as you’ll get. At that point, step back a bit and summarize what you’re agreeing about, and what you will continue to disagree about. You won’t always get them to agree to disagree, but you don’t need to keep disagreeing knowing it’ll get you nowhere.

Build your own ideological map

Pick any two beliefs that you think are the most significant in trying to understand someone’s political leanings, and try to judge where they stand on both those beliefs. For example, here’s a chart from Vox showing the ideologies of various American political figures:

It maps belief in two statements: “government support for minorities is good” and “wealth redistribution is good”. Not everybody believes in both, and belief in one is not an indicator of belief in the other.

Not entirely okay with that chart? That’s fine, because charts such as these are tools to view the politics of one specific country, at that specific time. Beliefs vary across regions, people change over time, and parties shift their ideologies to better reflect those in power (not the voters, silly!) The most perfect example of this shift over time is the rise of the Indian political right, which has caused the utter demolition of centrist positions.

Here’s a fantastic infographic showing the same thing (courtesy Rahul Verma on Twitter):

In Verma’s charts, he examines India’s political parties along two dimensions: “politics of recognition”, or the belief that some sections of society (lower castes, religious minorities etc.) have been treated badly through history and thus need to be recognized as such; and “politics of statism”, or the belief that the Indian state needs to actively involve itself in shaping societal norms and practices.

The two charts above are starkly different both in their scope and in the type of questions they ask. Yet, they are both useful in seeing people’s outward behaviour through their individual ideological lenses. Pick up one of the above, or make your own. It doesn’t matter as long as you have a certain framework to place people and their beliefs relative to each other and (maybe) pit them against each other.

Descend into the particulars

Because people have a whole range of beliefs inside them, it’s generally impossible in one sitting to know how similar they are to your own. So, it makes no sense to get into a virtue-measuring contest.

Instead, get down to the fighting pits and get your hands dirty. Ask them what they mean when they say something. Ask for details. Shed the ideology talk and get down to the argument: what is the specific statement, action or cause that is being argued over? Do not engage any “high level” bullshit about equality or rights or tradition. Define your stance and make them define theirs. If you’re arguing with multiple people, make everybody clarify their position and understand how each one is similar to another, or how it is different from the other.

So, instead of arguing over how good Mexican immigration to the US is, you should be discussing whether separating refugees from their children is a good idea. In place of saying Xinjiang is a humanitarian nightmare, you can be saying that “detention and reeducation camps” in various cities throughout Xinjiang have the potential to be places of immense violence and unspeakable horror, especially when you factor in the fact that China is as closed-off as a country can get. Instead of squabbling about whether the NRC-CAA is anti-Muslim, you should be fighting over the moral validity of making people produce documents they cannot possibly have, to please politicians that cannot possibly be convinced that an Indian Muslim can have just as much right to citizenship as an Indian Hindu.

Avoiding hoity-toity talk lets you keep the discussion civil because you’re not calling each other names. All you’re doing is discussing the relative merits of the two sides to a specific idea. That’s it. You also immediately get the moral high ground because you took the care to understand everybody’s position before jumping into the ring. Therefore, you are now the referee as well, and can exercise control over everybody in the group and call for peace and calm when things get out of control. And once the discussion is over, you harbour no animosity and can continue to try to chip away at their bigotry. Not only does specificity make your argument that much more convincing, it also gives you another opportunity to try if you fail the first time.

Imagine that. Change that keeps on changing.

Know your own biases and blindspots

As I said earlier, we all walk into an argument with our own beliefs and ideologies. And unlike opinions, you cannot easily shake beliefs. So, it always helps to audit yourself. Once in a while, sit back and take stock of where you stand with respect to a few fundamental questions: do I believe I’m equal to everybody else? Do I believe I need to be given any special privileges for being intelligent, smart, successful, rich etc.? Do I believe that the state should play a major role in deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in society?

For each question, rate yourself along a scale of 0-9, and file it away. Anything that’s less than 2 or more than 7 is a strong belief, and therefore a potential blind spot. These are your Achilles’ heels in any argument. Before placing someone on your ideological map, ask yourself whether your rating of them has anything to do with your biases. Over time, you’ll realize that many people you’d dismissed as “extreme” probably seem that way because you are pretty extreme yourself.

A conclusion

In testing times such as these, the world can seem bleak and hopeless. Maybe it is. But there’s also hope: schoolchildren are fighting for their world, the disenfranchised are clawing into positions of power, women are taking over businesses and businesses are taking responsibility for their actions. It will take time for the world to correct its path, and 2020 won’t be the year we all see a better world. But, one person at a time, we can make sure that we aren’t hating when we can be convincing, fighting when we can be arguing, or hurting when we can be educating.

But beware the peddlers of Moore’s paradox: “it is raining, but I don’t believe that it is raining”. Or, in its more quotidian form: “what you are saying is right, but I don’t believe that you are right”.

Categories
Indian politics Politics Society

Lynchings and Hangings Solve Nothing

Another day, another brutal murder-rape in India. This time, the scene of the gruesome gangrape and murder of a veterenarian wasn’t Delhi, Gurgaon, Allahabad or Patna. It was the relatively safe, “progressive” city of Hyderabad. Understandably, everybody is furious. A widely circulating video on social media asks for the lynching and chemical castration of the accused.

There is a perverse kind of logic here: if you brutalize people enough, they are going to think twice about brutalizing women. Not only is this kind of thinking reductionist and against constitutional norms, it’s also completely missing the point. At best, brutal punishments are a bad solution to the wrong problem; at worst, they are inhumane and ripe for abuse.

The reductionist manifesto

The most important reason societies fail to prevent such heinous crimes against women is actually quite simple: they fail to realize that rape by an individual is fundamentally different from gangrape. The former is a power equation between the two people involved, but the latter is a reflection of the dynamics of the victim’s and the rapists’ identities within the community.

A lone rapist needs two things to carry out his act: proximity to his victim, and the knowledge that he can get away with it. An uncle molesting his underaged nephew is aware of these factors, as is the boyfriend taking advantage of his new girlfiend. Sometimes, proximity comes from mere physical distance: as we can see in the numerous cases of rapes committed by cab drivers. But other times, the perpetrators use emotional proximity as a lever to coerce the victim into acts she may not be comfortable with. Assaults of this kind are common to the point of invisibility: in college dorms, buses, homes, schools, parks. Everywhere you can have two people in seclusion, you can find the potential for sexual attacks. Proximity is the biggest factor in rapes: according to the NCRB, in 94% of all rapes, the victim and the culprit knew each other before the rape. So, rapes are personal.

However, gangrapes are a different beast. The perps only really need to be aware of one thing: the weakness of their victim’s identity. Every woman is acutely aware of this. Walk through any large city and you see signs of it everywhere: men leering at every woman walking past them, making passes at them while every man nearby pretends that nothing’s happening. Time and time again, victims of gangrape have to pierce through layers of inscrutable prejudice against their identity.

When the victim is a young person with hopes, dreams and careers she aspire towards by dint of her equal constitutional rights, the rapists see a woman. A weakling who cannot resist. Nothing else matters. Does not matter if the woman is rich, famous or outspoken. Every woman is fair game for the gangbanger. This helplessness of the Indian woman is exacerbated by onlookers, authorities, the general public and even some parents that follow the familiar logic of: “oh look, a young woman who wants to look good! I bet all that attention from those men is exactly what she wanted.” So, if you want to fix the problem of gangrapes, it is useless to target the individuals who are directly responsible. What you need a much broader definition of what it means to “be responsible”. Whereas rape by an individual is an inherently personal act, a gangrape is necessarily communal.

It takes a whole village

Take your mind back to the now-forgotten gangrape of Asifa Bano in a village near Kathua. She was abducted in broad daylight, sedated, raped over several days and murdered. The most important part of this whole horrible affair is that she was held captive in a temple where villagers offer prayers thrice a day. The family was known to be part of a socially weak community facing severe pressures to move out.

When the accused were found to be members of a radical Hindu outfit, leaders quickly picked sides. Women and child rights activists picked the side of the victim, while village elders, community leaders and politicians implicitly took to defending the accused. Several members of the ruling party took part in protests supporting the accused, where women threatened to burn themselves in public if the accused were not released. Even lawyers showed up at courts blocking authorities from filing the necessary paperwork. Civic communities expressed their outrage by demanding the death penalty for the accused, calls which were routinely suppressed by the police, media and politicians playing their own cynical games.

A further level of responsibility lay on the officers responsible for the investigation. Several policemen were found to have tried to prevent witness testimony and some were arrested on suspicion of trying to tamper with evidence. Many of them had received bribes to suppress the case. When the attention turned to the relationship between the policemen and the accused, it was shown that the policemen had allowed patently false “evidence” to be produced.

Look at the chain of events and you see a familiar pattern emerging: between the victim and justice lies a whole world jealously guarding the rapists. And none of it is addressed by reflexive demands for lynching and castration.

Harsh punishments don’t deter crime

This is a simple point, but one that popular media has yet to realize: harsher punishments don’t really deter crime. Time and time again, academics have shouted from every stage that would allow them that the current retributive attitude towards justice is completely wrong.

A 2014 study undertaken by the National Research Council announced that one of its “most important conclusions is that the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.” In other words, threatening people with increasingly harsh punishments doesn’t discourage crime. And it’s not just for longer prison sentences; even death penalty has little effect on the incidence of crime. Amnesty has said so for years now, but like everything these days, it’s fallen on deaf ears.

If anything, harsher punishments encourage bargaining behaviour, which makes it less likely that the perps actually face any action. For the sake of simplicity, let’s take an example of a traffic offence. If you’re facing a fine of $50, you’re likely to try to bribe the policeman with $30 so you can walk away and the cop can pocket the bribe. When facing a criminal sentence (like for drunken driving), you may decide to negotiate with him the price of your freedom. Let’s say you’re looking at a 6 month prison sentence. You may take the view that 6 months in the can is worth $5000 to you. So, you bribe the policeman the amount and walk out. Now, let’s say that a rich guy killed a few homeless people while driving under the influence. Let’s say this changes public attitude towards DUIs and the authorities decide that punishments need to be stricter – maybe 5 years in the can. Now, if you’re caught driving drunk, you’re going to think that 5 years is worth at least $15000. You promptly pay the cop and he pockets the money. The cop tells his cop friends and they realize that there’s money to be made in catching people drunk. Now, even otherwise decent cops get into the game, offering to free “harmless” or “just over the limit” alcoholics for a price. If corruption was at a 20% level earlier, now it’s likely to be 50%. If you raise the punishment further because everybody seems to be getting away with it, you’re likely to find nearly 100% corruption, under-reporting and a complete breakdown of the logic you began with.

This is exactly what we find in India with rapes. In our zeal to impose higher and higher punishments on rapists, we’ve given rise to a system where policemen take bribes to not register cases, intentionally perform shabby investigations, falsify evidence and tamper with witness testimony. India is not unique in this aspect: most countries with harsh punishments for rapists suffer similar issues. A BBC article quotes a lawyer saying “police are biased against women and are hesitant to even register cases of gang rape as that would mean the death penalty for a group of men. To circumvent that, often the case would be registered against one man only.” Even a government-appointed panel in India did not think that raising the intensity of punishment was going to have any effect.

So, yes, we all want justice. But there is a better way to achieve it than by simply increasing punishment.

The role of institutions

Research shows that the certainty of punishment is much more important than the severity. If you know for sure that your actions will face consequences, no matter how small, you’re likely to stop and evaluate whether it’s worth the effort. Countries that do a good job of providing a safe space for women do so from the ground-up.

A crucial part of this chain of trust is the role played by institutions such as the judiciary, law enforcement, civic groups and governmental agencies. Which one of us can confidently state that a stricter rape law, if enacted, would be enforced with equal vigour? None apart from the most delusional think that anything will change by increasing the sentence. Other than the possibilities of bribery, corruption and bargaining, there are countless other problems with Indian institutions that make them woefully inept at handling crimes against women.

First, there’s the universal “boys will be boys” defence offered by most men. This coupled with the fact that marital rape is not a crime means that most policemen don’t even recognize rape when they see it, and will therefore try to kill the crime before it even makes it to a police report. Second, there’s the bhav system endemic to India. If a policeman recognizes one of the accused, he’s likely to arrange for a negotiation and try to broker a deal that saves the culprit any public shaming. Once this is done, the policeman gains prestige and respect for being an “honourable man”.

A third problem, sometimes overlooked, is that laws that are “tough on crime” are almost always just “tough on minorities”. Government statistics show that the overwhelming majority of death row prisoners are from lower castes or religious minorities. Does this mean that upper-class Indians are somehow more virtuous than the rest? No, not at all. Quite the contrary. They are just very good at using institutions to cover their tracks.

Which brings me to the fourth and final problem: “incompetence on demand”. Indian policemen, investigative agencies and lawyers are fantastic at feigning incompetence when it’s convenient. When pursuing a case against a Muslim or an SC culprit, every single arm of the government works overtime; the PM comes out to congratulate the country when the guy is hanged, the burden of proof is shifted to the accused and “innocent until proven guilty” is all but forgotten. But a funny thing happens when the accused is upper-caste, or when they are politically connected. Suddenly, the system bends over backwards to mess up at every single chance.

As an example of the level of institutional incompetence I’m talking about, consider the Malegaon blast case from 2006. To a time when Times of India was a respectable newpaper and two full years before 26/11 blasts, and before all this hullabaloo about Islamic terror. The Malegaon case charged several high-profile political actors of conspiring to cause terror with the intention of making it seem like a Muslim plot. The case was watertight from the beginning, but somehow languished in the courts for 8 years. As soon as the BJP government came to power in 2014, the documents went “missing”, key witnesses turned hostile and the case just began falling apart. Many of the accused like Sadhvi Pragya Singh and Lt. Col. Prasad Shrikant Purohit got out on bail and now roam as free (wo)men.

Is this the institution that’s supposed to uphold stricter laws and bring rapists to justice?

Any way you look at it, the Indian criminal justice system is completely incapable of doing its job. Anybody placing their faith in this lopsided system is either unaware of ground realities or just plain complicit in the takeover of our institutions.

Crimes against liberal values

As I said earlier, no gangrape can exist divorced from the identities of the victim and the rapists. And yet, societies do precious little to elevate the weak and vulnerable. Every time we talk about the need to burn the accused or lynch them in public, we are failing the victim all over again.

Where the need is for a recognition of institutional blindness to women’s issues, we get calls for surveillance. Where we need to be giving young women more agency in matters of personal choice, we talk of even less choice. Where we need to be expanding the right to live a life of dignity, we want instead a world with more restrictions. When we should be expanding access to legal intruments, we talk instead of giving these corrupt and venal policemen even more powers. How does any of this make sense?

Burning the accused solves nothing. Mandatory death penalty does not change the fact that our insititutions are filled with corrupt actors. Village elders, panchayat leaders, politicians, policemen, lawyers all conspire to suppress the discovery of crimes by the powerful. Where are the accountability measures needed to keep them in check?

When a case like Kathua that the entire nation was watching can end up in a farce of a trial, how can we ensure that any trial will lead to a conviction? How can we even be sure that the ones we set on fire are the ones who committed the crime? In every single major crime, the impulse is to frame some convenient outcast: generally a Muslim, lower-caste or poor person with limited influence in the political sphere. By extinguishing their life without due process, we are shutting out any possibility of finding out who actually commits these crimes. How can we reform society without any insights into whom it’s actually benefitting? We see lynchings, hangings and burnings as a quick solution. But why does a solution need to be quick? Whom are we actually helping by impulsively punishing the first ones we can find?

Is all this righteous outrage for public consumption? I believe that yes, it is. Every time some Jaya Bachchan or Maneka Gandhi condemns “crimes against women” by asking us to take the law into our own hands by punishing some convenient scapegoat, they are depriving the term “justice” of all meaning.

Why do we need elected leaders and the powerful if they’re just going to ask us to resort to some DIY justice?

Outrage is a weapon for good

No tempest or conflagration, however great, is harder to quell than mob carried away by the novelty of power

Cicero

India is no stranger to social change. In recent years, everything from the Vishakha Commission to the Nirbhaya Act has been as a result of relentless public demand for something to be done about the impotence of women in public spaces. The very bottom-up nature of this means that nothing happens without us speaking up and holding up values we find dear.

But in the process, let’s not forget that justice is not the same as retaliation.

Categories
European Politics Politics

Swiss Neutrality: Convenient Practice More Than Steadfast Principle

There’s a whole laundry list of things that modern societies want out of their nation: a strong economy, stable democratic government, rule of law, friendly relations with neighbours, unchanging racial makeup, positive trade balance, an admiration for art and culture, a sense of history and patriotism and, finally, neutrality in international affairs. On the latter criterion, for most people, there exists an actual place that seemingly has it all. To them, the embodiment of neutrality is a small alpine nation wedged between France and Italy: Switzerland. Switzerland has not only never fought a war against another state for 500 years or so, but is actually recognized by the UN as a neutral country in most international affairs. I like the idea of “perpetual neutrality”, but I think the Swiss case demonstrates an important point about the reality of neutrality: staying neutral doesn’t automatically make you the good guy. I see neutrality in three dimensions: military, economic and political. Let’s begin at the deep end: military neutrality and why it was never the same as pacifism.

What even is military neutrality?

Switzerland has stayed neutral for a long, long time. In 1815, after Napoleon’s death released Switzerland from France’s grip, the Congress of Vienna enshrined the “perpetual neutrality” of the Swiss state. Even in the two World Wars, Switzerland remained neutral, as article after article breathlessly declares. There are two issues with this narrative: first, it hides the extent to which Switzerland was actually complicit in the affairs of repressive regimes; second, it also obscures how gargantuan Swiss military really was (and is).

Switzerland was never as neutral as we now think it is. In 1998, an independent inquiry headed by the Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier found that Swiss officials helped Nazi officials achieve their goals by closing off their borders to Jewish refugees, essentially dooming them to the concentration camps. Not only that, there was also a growing anti-Semitic movement within Switzerland itself that fanned the flames of the Holocaust. And what did the Swiss in their high chairs do about it? Nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. The Swiss authorities used their “neutrality” as an excuse to continue to allow Nazi sympathizers extraordinary freedoms within the borders of Switzerland, while denying Jews the same. None of this came as a result of pressure from Nazi Germany or lack of information either. The report spells out all the ways in which the Swiss military actively conspired with the Nazis. For example, Switzerland introduced “J-stamps” on the passports of Jewish citizens. So, if a Swiss Jew were to even try to help a German Jew, Nazis could easily find out who was helping whom. These stamps made surveillance and censorship comically easy. It did not stop there. Unlike the US and UK, which had no real understanding of ground realities until very late in WW2, Swiss authorities knew better than anybody else what was going on in Germany. Local exiles, aid groups and other humanitarians gathered a mountain of evidence – including photographs – that showed in remarkable detail how Jews were being deported and exterminated in concentration camps. And yet, Jewish refugees were denied entry into Switzerland.

Second, Switzerland wasn’t exactly a helpless little puppy. In 1942, Time reported that man for man, the Swiss army is second only to Germany in Europe. At its height, Switzerland maintained an army of 600,000 men that could be mobilized in less than an hour. These two armies even got into some limited confrontations from 1942-45, most famously when German planes were shot down by Swiss aircrafts for violating their airspace. Throughout the war, Switzerland was also bombed by the Allies several times, both intentionally and otherwise. Beginning in 1943 and over the space of a year or so, the town of Schaffhausen was almost flattened by Allied bombing, which led to some intense moments but no lasting damage to their relations. The Swiss also maintained a network of prisons and internment camps throughout the border regions. These were known to be places of squalor and intentionally brutal treatment of Jews. Here’s a bit from an article summarising the conditions:

The commandant was a pro-Nazi sympathiser called Captain André Béguin. He was in command despite having been expelled from the Swiss Army in 1937 for fraud and assaulting policemen. He was known to wear a Nazi uniform and signed his correspondences with “Heil Hitler”. He was hardly the right man to run a neutral internment camp and it showed. The barracks were cold sheds and prisoners slept on wooden boards covered with straw. The latrines were slit trenches, the food was atrocious and there were vermin everywhere.

Béguin publicly berated Americans, held them in solitary confinement and denied them Red Cross parcels. Prisoners would emerge from Wauwilermoos malnourished and ill. Many Swiss citizens reported that conditions in the camp were paradoxically in violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention. Despite protests from Allied countries and Swiss army officers and journalists Béguin was not removed until 1945.

Cut to the present day and the Swiss army is still no stranger to conflict. Since WW2, it has been on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea. Even after the realities of the Iraq War were revealed, Switzerland took its own time about pulling troops out of there.

So, the facade of neutrality hasn’t exactly stopped Switzerland from brutality and violence. Is this what neutrality looks like? To most, not at all.

No such thing as free policy

Okay, the Swiss don’t have any military neutrality. But what about political neutrality? This is a moot question. There can never be a truly politically neutral state. The Non-Alignment Movement of the mid-20th century was a great statement of autonomy by its signing members, but ultimately failed. That’s because over time, staying neutral on the international stage while having to face democratic politics at home becomes untenable. Switzerland is no different. While not a part of the NAM or NATO, Switzerland is a NATO partner state. As such, it has actively sided with the US and its allies for the longest time and, at least on one occasion, sanctioned Soviet officials by preventing them from using the country’s ski resorts. Of all he things it could have done, the country picked ski resorts! Bold move, Switzerland.

Let’s also not forget that it hosts several arms of the UN, Red Cross and various other humanitarian missions. Its position, therefore, is similar (if not identical) to the positions of these agencies on most geopolitical matters. So, for all intents and purposes, Switzerland is a traditionally “liberal” Western democracy.

Where’s the neutrality in that?

War is undiluted opportunity

Quick quiz: we all know that the Nazis stole gold, jewelry and artwork from Jews throughout Germany and many parts of France. So, what happened to all that wealth once the war was over? Was it returned? Was it confiscated? And what happened to the people who helped stash all this wealth?

The answers: Not much, not really, no, nothing.

Switzerland was the country of choice for Nazi officials looking to stash their ill-begotten gains. An investigation by Israeli authorities showed that approximately 80% of all the wealth plundered from Jews was never recovered. In 1946, Switzerland returned $250 million of cash, gold and artworks and washed its hands of all responsibility. In 1997, declassified documents and deeper inverstigations showed the extent to which Swiss bankers were willing to work with any and all who were willing to bank with them. After the war, they proved impossibly hard in the Allies’ efforts to return stolen goods to their rightful owners. For Switzerland, “neutrality” just means that you can take money from all and give it back to none.

The thing is, this is an old trick that “neutral states” have played for centuries, if not forever. During the crusades, as Christian Europe was locked in a pseudo-religious battle with the Muslim states of Asia, the city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa projected themselves as principled “neutral” parties who could not be convinced to join either side. However, as soon as it became clear that the potential reward was Constantinople itself, everybody picked sides in an instant. And once together, they sacked and pillaged the most magnificent city of its time.

Venice in the Dark Ages was very similar to Switzerland today: a mercantile state with a strong economy and relatively stable institutions. During the Fourth Crusade, when the Christian armies fancied an attempt to take Constantinople, Venice was under the rule of Enrico Dandolo: an ambitious, cunning and mercantile Doge who justified joining the crusade by proclaiming that Venice had a duty to protect and advance her interests.

In April of 1204, Constantinople was sacked and pillaged by the Venetians and the European crusaders. After the fall of Constantinople, the Venetians and the European crusaders established the Latin Empire. The Latin Empire was the division of the city of  Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine territories throughout the Mediterranean region among the Venetians and the other crusader-nations. The majority of Constantinople and the other Byzantine territories were held by the Venetians, and subsequently the most strategic ports, beneficial for the continuation of trade throughout the new Latin Empire, also came under Venice’s control.

University of Mary Washington, from John Norwich’s “A History of Venice”

To add another level of historical parallel to the stories of Venice and Switzerland, the Venetians brought many Byzantine spoils back to Venice and affixed them to the exterior of San Marco to represent their dominance over the fallen Byzantine Empire. Even today, many of the major landmarks of Venice like St Mark’s Basilica shamelessly bear artworks stolen from Byzantium. Just like how Switzerland today shamelessly exhibits the instruments it uses to steal works and shield them from international scrutiny. This article in Eurozine perfectly captures the blatant hypocrisy of Switzerland’s claim to neutrality:

In the post-war negotiations between the Allies and the Swiss government on the handling of German assets and looted gold, Swiss politicians at home defined the issue as a case of David versus Goliath. A strong body of opinion saw the struggle as a vain attempt to uphold the sanctity of private property against infringements by the Great Powers. In November 1946, the chief Swiss negotiator, Walter Stucki, accused the Allies of having violated the principles embodied in their own Atlantic Charter. The fact that, in March 1945, Switzerland had bowed to American pressure and agreed to freeze all German assets, prohibit dealing in foreign currencies, and restrict the purchase of gold from Germany, was, he stated, the result of pressure worse than anything Göring had ever attempted, a violation of principles in a world “lacking material and moral foundations”, where Switzerland found itself in “dangerous political isolation”. The irony of a singularly narrow-minded definition of Swiss national interest proclaiming itself to be the embodiment of universal norms only became apparent to the world five decades later, when the World Jewish Congress and the Eizenstat report confronted the Swiss authorities on the matter of wartime Jewish property.

Arne Ruth in Eurozine

William Tecumseh Sherman said “war is hell”. Switzerland heard “war is opportunity”.

Neutrality of convenience

The most perfect encapsulation of Switzerland’s strategy of “enrichment by neutrality” is this dour building in Geneva roughly twice the size a Walmart Supercenter:

Geneva Freeport

This building hosts the Geneva Freeport, the most important building of its kind in the world. This, like any other Freeport, is a building designed to be outside any financial scrutiny, and thus, exists almost as an island completely insulated from any attempts to know what goes on inside.

Such a thing, naturally, is very useful if you happen to have expensive tastes and don’t want to hide them or pay taxes on them. If you stash an artwork in the Geneva Freeport, you don’t have to pay any taxes on it. Better still, you don’t even need to pay any charges or make any disclosures if you sell it to another person who also happens to use the freeport. It’s like a black hole into which several important pieces of art have a habit of disappearing. And a bit like the black hole information paraox, there also exists a “Geneva Freeport Information Paradox”, as exemplified in the case of the Nahmad family’s attempts to hold onto a painting stolen by Nazis and then stashed away in the freeport.

The Swiss Army knife of excuses

I know I haven’t really bothered to build a strong narrative through this post. But this post isn’t about a story. It’s about the utility of “neutrality” as an argument of convenience for countries that lack the spine required to do the right thing. Yes, I’ve picked on Switzerland and yes, some of my arguments are based on a specific reading of history. But this point can just as easily be made about Sweden, Venice and Israel at various points in their respective histories. Staying impartial, many times, is just a coward’s way of agreeing with the powerful.

The case of Switzerland shows that staying “neutral” is much easier than we think, and also much more profitable than we realise.

PS: A great peek into the world of secrecy and the economics of abetment is in The Laundromat by Jake Bernstein, which breaks down what makes Switzerland such a shady dealer in the financial world, and dedicates a whole chapter to the Geneva Freeport.

Categories
Indian History Indian politics Religion

The Idea of Ayodhya

Hindustan as an alternative to India

“A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when it was des­erted and installed a deity there. DM and SP and f­orce at the spot. Situation under control. Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night, but did not apparently act.”

— K.K.K. Nayar (23 Dec, 1949)

This is the first time in years that I’ve decided to write several thousand words on anything other than an academic assignment. So, I’ll try to string my thoughts into a nice blog-friendly structure. Bear with me.

So there’s this idea in political science that when the British waved a wand and vanished in a puff of smoke from what they called “India”, what they left wasn’t so much a country as a bunch of identities loosely confined within an area roughly the size of the Amazon. A fevered puzzle of peoples that had hithertofore agreed to disagree on everything from religion and development to the role of women. People have discussed it for the longest time, in newspaper articles, editorials and countless sneering told-you-sos, and some like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have built their whole careers wrestling with what that means for the India of today.

So you’ll forgive me for my insistence that in order to reach Ayodhya, we need to pass through the bylanes and durbars of Delhi.

What gave us this nation? Why did we end up with the nation we have today, with all its contradictions and problems? How did this chaotic country of 300-something million at independence decide to become a democracy, granting everyone suffrage from the get-go, working within the first decade to dismantle pernicious social structures like untouchability, inequality and zamindari that had hamstrung us for millennia? India’s story is not only surprising within the context of history, but within the broader geopolitical realm in the middle of the 20th century. In a sea of multicultural melting pots like Syria, Nigeria and Iraq (all wrecked by the British, but that’s a story for another day) that never saw an ounce of development or harmony, India stands out as a curious anomaly. Even today, there isn’t another country with the level of diversity of opinion, identities, languages, faiths, opportunities and aspirations as India.

And yet, there’s a level of agreement on some basics: we are all equal but not the same, we get to pick our leaders (to whatever extent any modern democracy allows its citizens to), and we all get to argue, bicker, fight, shout and scream till we’re blue in the face; just to be able to believe whatever we want to. In other words, we all believe in the nation-state of India. So, a natural question to ask is: how is it that if we can’t agree on anything, we can all seemingly agree on what is and what isn’t India? It’s a weird question – and not just because I framed it that way.

One fantastic book that captures the essential absurdity of this contradiction is The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani.

TL;DR: there is no single India, and there never was. What we have now is mostly a Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of India as a pluralistic, egalitarian experiment where the state gets to tell its citizens how to conduct themselves with dignity. The other ideas that lost out were: the capitalistic India of Naoroji, the Hindustan of Golwalkar, the kookyland of Besant and the militaristic powderkeg of Bose.

And there began our troubles

See, the issue was that not everybody bought into this idea. There are many that still cling to this outdated and entirely absurd notion that India was a “Hindu rashtra” at some point and we need to return the nation to that. When exactly? 2500 years ago, when the only “Hindus” were in what is now Pakistan, and everybody else prayed to whatever animal they felt like? 2000 years ago, when the country was mostly Buddhist as a rejection of the Hindu social order? 1500 years ago, when the country was so divided on religious grounds that the Buddhists, Shaivas and Vaishnavas considered each themselves entirely distinct religions and burned each other’s temples to the ground? Or was it 1000 years ago, when the Muslim rulers started to organize themselves around Delhi and a large part of northern India was naturally converting to Islam? Or India’s inarguable glory days of wealth and prosperity under the rule of Sher Shah Suri or Akbar but without the Muslim monarchs who are just too much for you to bear? But if you don’t like any of the above, everything else is mostly just a country fragmented into a million states that were only ever united under Ashoka, Akbar and the British Raj. Notice how none of them were ever Hindu empires.

Any way we slice it, in the 2500 years of history of India as a geopolitical entity, it’s only since the 15th century (after the Bhakti wave peaked) that India was a Hindu-majority region. Not Hindu, merely Hindu-majority. So, the idea of Hindustan is based around a narrow focus on 20-25% of the entire history of this country, without any clear reason for why we should focus on this specific 20%. It’s a baseless idea built around flawed logic and a poor understanding of history.

It’s kind of like planting a Hindu image in what is clearly, obviously and historically a non-Hindu building, getting a mob together, performing a puja and hoping that the noise can hide the fact that this idol didn’t exist yesterday.

A bit like the symbolic fight over Ayodhya.

Symbolic of his struggle against reality

The Muslim argument is built on history

We all know the Muslim side of this. Babur, a Kyrgyz-Uzbek warlord who claimed to be descended from both Genghis Khan and Timur, fought his way through the Hindu Kush and arrived in Delhi. He did not like the city or the region and prefered Kabul instead.

Hindustan is a place of little charm… There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

Babur in “Baburnama”

His sister, Khanzada, is one of the most badass and underrated female figures in history (Netflix Originals, where you at?). Also, fun facts: Babur appears to have had homosexual tendencies, drank like a fish, loved music, did every drug that Kabul could offer him and his autobiography (by all accounts, a beautiful work) seems more like a Sufi work than anything a pious Muslim would write. Here’s one gem:

Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye.

We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave.

If that doesn’t make you think about the impermanence of glory on the same lines as Ozymandias by Shelley, I don’t know what will. Needless to say, he was also a very characteristically harami Mughal emperor. Another thing that gets overlooked: Babur (and his line) would have preferred to be known as Timurids instead of as Mughals, because they were proud of their Timurid heritage and not so much of their Mongol blood. Babur, as should be obvious by now, had some not-so-nice things to say about the Moghuls:

The Moghul troops who had come as reinforcements had no endurance for battle. They left the battle and began to unhorse and plunder our own men. It was not just here they did this: those wretched Moghuls always do this. If they win they take booty; if they lose they unhorse their own people and plunder them for booty.

Think about that when you’re thinking about why Baburnama is essential reading in most of Central Asia, and I believe should be in Indian schools as well.

He also seems to have ordered the construction of a small mosque in a little sleepy town called Ayodhya. “Seems to have”, because the only record we have of the date is from several decades after the mosque was constructed. Also, for a guy who liked Babur as much as Babur did, there’s no mention of this “Babri Masjid” in his autobiography. There’s also no real evidence to show that Mir Baqi was a “Mir”, or even a significant individual of the time. But the mosque stood nonetheless and people prayed there for centuries, seemingly unmolested by the Hindus around it.

So, let’s not belabour the point here. the Muslim argument is solid and rests on some evidence, but like all Indian history, the details are a bit fuzzy. Let’s look at the “carefully constructed”, “historically accurate” Hindu argument.

The Hindu argument is a whole load of cowdung

Long, long ago, a Dalit man wrote a wildly speculative book called “Ramayana” which said that a racist, sexist hunk called Rama was born in Ayodhya. Nobody seriously takes it to be historically accurate – not least because there are no man-sized apes in Karnataka that can leap across an ocean. It only starts to resemble reality if you reduce it to this:

  • man marries woman
  • they leave on a holiday/exile/honeymoon
  • woman escapes/elopes/gets kidnapped
  • man needs to prove his manliness and ownership over woman by killing the “kidnapper” who actually treats her with more respect than the husband ever does throughout the length of the tale
  • man returns victorious but shames wife for getting kidnapped in the world’s oldest tale of victim blaming.

But even then, it’s little more than a myth to most modern Indians.

Except people like Subramanian Swamy, who’s just a litigious joker with a sensitive ego – and we don’t need to worry about him. Or maybe we do, because rabble rousers like him planted an idol in 1949 and started this whole drama in the first place. Then, they razed Babri to the ground in 1992, on live TV no less. Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

The key instigators like Uma Bharti and LK Advani were rewarded by the Indian political class with MP posts, pretigious ministries at the centre and a whole lot of political capital. The people who stood in the way and tried to prevent popular violence were figures we’re now uncomfortable with. Don’t believe me? Watch:

Later, when the case made its way to the Allahabad HC, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) found some structural remains under the Babri masjid complex, and the layout of the leftovers looked vaguely like a temple. And that’s it – that’s all the “scientific proof” that the Hindu side’s argument rests on.

The Hindu argument then boils down to this Sparknotes version:

  • Book of fiction written at some unclear point in history says Rama was born in Ayodhya
  • There was a temple under the Babri Masjid
  • Some travellers to Ayodhya write that there was a temple to Rama there at some point
  • Ergo, this site is where Rama’s temple stood.
  • Therefore, it’s ours.

For more insights into the outrageousness of Hindu fundamentalist arguments about Ayodhya and many other topics, watch Vivek (‘Reason’ in English) by Anand Patwardhan. It’s won a bunch of awards, but is not a pretty movie, and is not meant to be a casual watch on the bus ride home. Sit down at a desk and watch. I could only find a link to the Hindi version, so I’m sorry if you don’t understand Hindi.

The emptiness of this case doesn’t end there, because there are some uniquely Indian peculiarities at play here. Enter the courts.

This shit is tiring, man

I’m way out of my depths in the legalities in this section, but I’ve been following this case long enough to be able to see a pattern of complete nonsense in the shenanigans and dirty tricks being used here. Here’s a timeline to help you follow along. There’s a ton of supplementary reading material available in a bookstore near you, if you’re interested in diving deeper into any of the below.

The first is the legal oddity left over from the British period that the deity aka Ram Lalla (aka made up idol placed in temple to provoke Muslims) carries legal rights of its own and is thus represented in court by its own lawyer. The history of this is fascinating and speaks volumes about how the British deepened India’s societal divisions and turned them into active political tools.

And then, one of these clowns on the Hindu side had the bright idea of taking this idea further. He filed that the site itself, “Ramjanmabhoomi”, be added as a party to the claim on the grounds that the site itself is sacred to Hindus and its identity cannot be separated from Ram Lalla. You can see the logic at play here.

To make matters worse, the Shia and Sunni sides, predictably, started fighting each other in public statements, weakening each other’s arguments and undercutting the legalese they were spouting in court. This, added to the open hostility and downright backwardness of some of their arguments during the triple talaq hearings just made it much harder for them to convince anybody that there was a “good” Muslim team here.

In the end, the Hindu side won the case with a weaker argument and no claim to the title.

The Hindu side won (obviously)

How did this come to be? The fact is, it was almost inevitable. For one thing, the Hindu parties were better organised and presented a unified face, with most of their disagreements about the role of the Nirmohi Akhara and amicus filings kept under wraps by the guiding hand of the RSS, or Sangh.

Second, the Muslim side had the rug pulled from under them by the Ismail Faruqui ruling in 1994. This meant that the court effectively proclaimed that mosques were not essential to the practice of Islam. When challenged in the SC, the Court decided to not refer this case to a constitution bench because that earlier ruling was only about that specific land dispute. So, the writing on the wall was clear: Muslims cannot expect the courts to hold up their right to worship.

Fundamentally, there was a huge asymmetry in what the two sides were expected to accomplish through the case. For one thing, the Muslim side had to show that the land was being used for prayers, had a clear line of usage and was essential to the Muslim population around there. They were unable to get a mass of people to prove it because of the slightly inconvenient fact that the masjid no longer exists and thus a revisionist could always say that it was never needed in the first place, and the larger issue that UP under Ajay Bisht is on a fast track to the stone age. The Hindu side only needed to show a few pamphlets and “sacred texts” of zero factual value to prove that a temple to Rama existed around that area. However, their frequent shows of force with rallies and procamations meant that courts had to factor into their decision the possibility of sectarian violence erupting as soon as the verdict was out.

And there, we see the problem coming full circle: India’s highest court itself no longer fully subscribes to the “Idea of India” written into the Constitution.

The Ill, The Illiberal and The Illegitimate

The Indian Constitution is a thing of beauty. But not the kind of robust, timeless beauty of the Grand Canyon or Everest. Instead, it’s a bit like the beauty of Michelangelo’s Painting in the Sistine Chapel: artificial, ethereal, delicate and dependent on something else for structural support. The Supreme Court was just that: the meat and bones to a spectacularly liberal and progressive body. Go over the list of landmark SC cases and you’ll see a pattern: the Court has built an image of steadfast justice and no-holds-barred discipline to the founding principles of the Constitution. Apart from the Emergency years (when practically nothing was untouched by Indira Gandhi’s powerlust), the SC has an almost squeaky-clean bill of health. And it’s not just me saying it.

But now, there’s some walking back going on. The SC is no longer an apolitical body, for better or for worse. There are many reasons for this: India’s growing illiberal class, the deviation of executive capacity from the goals of the judiciary and temptations of the legislative, disintegration of the Congress, etc. But I think the fundamental issue is much more pedestrian: just plain corruption.

What this means for the country is that there’s that much less willingness within the judiciary to fight the excesses of legislation, or to push the executive to do more to pretect people’s rights. We see this time and time again, from the court’s unwillingness to engage with the reality of “sedition laws” to the weaponization of the CBI and NIA to the fact that nobody raises a finger against blatantly religious content in states’ academic curricula. Outgoing CJIs get cushy jobs on “committees” designed to do nothing, and immunity from prosecution in the case of inconvenient allegations against them.

The trouble with the new normal

I like the idea of India I grew up with – a pluralistic, socialist, secular, democratic republic. It makes sense to me, seems just, fair and something for the political class to aspire towards. Nothing captures this spirit as much as the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore. The white Dravidian building in a city of glass and steel is a bit of an anachronism these days, but just its existence is a testament to the character of this country.

The Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, in Jan 2019

The building was mostly designed and conceptualised by the Chief Minister at the time, K. Hanumanthaiah, a man with no architectural knowledge, to commemorate the independence of the Mysore princely state, a wealthy and progressive subject of the British crown. The basic idea is said to have begun from the structure of a Dravidian temple – more specifically the architectural style of the Badami Chalukyas, hence the distinct and rounded “gopuram”. Upper reaches of the gopuram incorporate some elements of Persian architecture as well, a nod to the significant role that successful Muslims had played in shaping the state’s history – one of Mysore’s most famous rulers was Tipu Sultan, a legendary warrior-king whose tales of valour and indomitability inspire many to this day. The gilded lion of Sarnath at the top symbolizes the Union of India, of which Mysore was now a part. But the building was to be more than just a statement of the state’s identity – it was also a declaration of the new India’s aspirations: the Romanesque columns holding up the front are a mishmash of various architectural elements picked up in his travels through Europe. With the construction of this building, Hanumanthaiah was stating his intention to develop the state along Western European lines, but without forgetting its unique place in history.

If you peer closely at the inscription right above the columns, it says “Government’s work is God’s work”, a clever inversion of the priorities in “work is worship”. This, to me, is the right role of religious identities – as a factor to be mindful of. Not be guided by it as fundamentalists of every yarn would have us do, or be entirely agnostic to the religious beliefs of the population you govern – as Western democracies tend to view “secularism”. To me, the secular character of India is about more than just professed agnosticism. It is the duty of the state to respect Constitutional principles, actively engage every group and bring a compromise that serves the weaker sections of society. It is served by giving each group a voice, amplifying it so we hear the substance of the argument and then, collectively agreeing upon a mutually respectful course of action.

The Ayodhya verdict is a farce

The Ayodhya verdict achieves most of these but essentially assumes that the Muslims can determine their own course of action in the regular democratic processes of elections and politics. In doing so, the bench misses the most crucial point: if Muslims could dictate their own fate, they would not have to reach the highest court in the country to have their say. The Hindu side has been agitating that if the land wasn’t handed over to them, they’d find other means to achieve it. What recourse did the Muslims have if their side lost? Nothing.

The bench stated that this was merely a property dispute, and that it was not in the court’s mandate to dictate matters of faith. Therefore, the bickering Shia side and Ramjanmabhoomi were thrown out since they were not parties to the dispute. The verdict gave all of the 2.77 acres to the Hindus and instucted the government to hand over a 5 acre piece of land “in a prominent place” to the Muslim parties as compensation.

Seems fair? Sure. But consider this: it was the Muslim side with a stronger claim to the property, and the Hindu side produced no documents to prove the provenance of the land under question. In a property dispute, the Hindus only argued on matters of faith. So why were they rewarded? Let’s assume it’s not a property dispute, despite what the court says. If this was a religious dispute instead, why were the religious arguments of the Muslim side truncated? Why was the role of a mosque not examined again? Why was the Hindu side not required to produce any material on the reliability of Ramayana as a mapping tool? So, it’s not a religious dispute either. Things don’t add up because the case was neither about property nor about religion. It was purely political.

The court – as is the norm these days under loquacious CJIs like Misra and Gogoi who care more about the language of their judgment and the number of times they quote Shakespeare and Locke in one paragraph – wrote in beautiful prose about the high ideal that the Supreme Court of India stands for and the importance of the following rule of law, and of respecting everybody’s opinion. Then quickly turned around and spat justice in the face.

Coming right after the FRA verdict recently, this goes to show that the SC is no longer a reliable friend of the downtrodden. The court decided in favour of the status quo; and thereby implicitly chose the powerful. It abdicated its duty as we watched and cheered on.

The idea of India stands tall in Bangalore and houses the state legislature. Now, a monument to the idea of Hindustan will be built in Ayodhya, acting as a refuge to everybody who thinks that an equal society undermines their right to superiority over someone else.

Shame on all of us for letting it get this far.