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Book Reviews

Book review: Bullshit Jobs

We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darvinist theory, he must justify his right to exist

Buckminster Fuller

David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is a 360-odd page expansion of his earlier essay ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs‘, which set out to make the case that many high-paying, respectable jobs are completely unnecessary and meaningless. I must admit, I wasn’t familiar with Graeber’s essay before reading the book. For the most part, I hadn’t really thought very deeply about the phenomenon, despite knowing many people I can now recognise as being caught in such BS jobs.

When I picked up this book, I was going solely by the title and coverpage, which looked interesting and provocative. I thought was it was going to be one of those ‘The 4-hour Workweek’ kind of pop-management books, where the author makes a bunch of loose, interesting but essentially forgettable claims to support a “cool”, contrarian viewpoint. My experience with such books has generally been that they’re easy reads, and make for good ways to kill time on a flight or something, and I always hated the fact that these authors take 200+ pages to make a point you could easily fit on a business card with some room to spare.

‘Bullshit Jobs’ is nothing like that. It’s a deceptively simple idea hiding a far more sinister, insidious structure that is becoming increasingly hard for me to ignore.

The first chapter introduces the reader to Graeber’s previous essay, and defines what he considers to be bullshit jobs:

Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless or pernicious; typically, there has to be somd degree of pretense and fraud involved as well. The jobholder must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason why her job exists, even if, privately, she finds such claims ridiculous

The examples he provides include the well-remunerated armies of administrative staff in universities, PR consultants, IT subcontractors, financial sector workers etc. Jobs that are meaningless because they perform redundant, circular or unnecessary activities that only aim to further the existence and creation of more such jobs. In effect, Graeber’s book identifies modern industries of corporate rent-seeking. They’re just as likely in the public as well as the private sector, and increasingly more common in the private sector, where the firms are shielded from public scrutiny, and protected by neoliberal apologists who justify their existence because in a free market, the market creates needs, which are then filled by jobs. Therefore, bullshit jobs cannot be bullshit because they’re only responding to a market need for such jobs (I will comment on my own assessment of this argument later on).

Moreover, he points out, there’s a distinction between “bullshit jobs” and “shit jobs”:

Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are treated badly


The second chapter creates a taxonomy of bullshit jobs – flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters. Flunky jobs are those that exist purely to make someone else look or feel important – like executive assistants for a mid-level manager who wants to feel important, and receptionists for an office that only does business online. Flunkies sometimes end up doing 80-100% of non-bullshit aspects of their bosses’ jobs. Goons’ jobs have an aggressive element to them, and there’s no reason for them to exist except that other people employ them – think national armies, lobbyists and telemarketers. Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist because of flaws, inefficiencies or problems in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that shouldn’t even exist – Graeber includes a poignant little example about how throughout history, prominent men have wandered around oblivious to the goings-on around them, leaving their wives, sisters or mothers to clean up after them and negotiating solutions as they arise, thereby “duct-taping” the issues caused by these great men. Box-tickers are people who exist predominantly to allow an organization to claim to be doing something it isn’t – like diversity consultants, factfinding commissions, PR people, sustainability consultants etc. Finally, taskmasters come in two varieties – unnecessary superiors and creators of unnecessary tasks for others.

While the taxonomy is definitely interesting and sometimes insightful, I see many of these BS jobs (especially flunkies, box-tickers and goons) as a form of signalling and a type of Mullerian mimicry, where you stand to lose by not indulging in this meaningless activity.

This reminded me of a (possibly apocryphal) story of a Fortune 500 CEO, when asked about why his company is paying him an outrageous amount despite the company’s poor performance, stated that if they didn’t do it, it would signal to its competitors and investors that the company isn’t serious about improving performance, and other executives would jump ship, thinking it was sinking. Essentially, for any company that seeks to buck this trend of useless jobs, it’s a Catch-22: “yes, a CMO is entirely useless to the day-to-day functioning of the company” (Uber hasn’t had one in over a year), “… but we can’t attract top marketers to our company if they don’t see a neat career pathway leading to the top”.

So, a BS job – if sufficiently common – is meaningful merely because it is widely expected among peers, therefore requiring you to employ a flunky if you are to perform your job properly. Of course, it’s another matter if your job is itself a BS job. And the flunky becomes the flunked.


The third chapter is mostly a treatise on the consequenes of Puritanical “moral confusion” that Graeber talks about in his previous book on debt. The gist of it is that our assumptions about why humans work and what motivates them to keep working in meaningless jobs are completely wrong. We assume that people, when given the choice to be a parasite, would definitely take it. Graeber makes a case for the opposite view: that actually, people hate boredom, and want to be the cause of something meaningful. As Graeber’s interviewees see it, “a human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.” I think this is a particularly powerful insight, and helps to explain why most people end up gravitating to one of two kinds of jobs: BS jobs at important companies, and non-BS jobs at startups that have no real shot at success. We look for purpose even as we try to chase money, fame and all the other things humans have always chased after.

Here, Graeber takes a historical view at the changing nature of what it meand to work, and how it related to other abstractions like time, money, the economy, God and so on. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the book and could easily have been trimmed down to a few pages of high-level analysis without going into the details of serfdom and ancient Roman concepts of slavery.

Nevertheless, Graeber teases two factors that could explain why a reasonable person values jobs so highly – even if (and sometimes, especially because) they’re complete BS. One reason is that in modern cities, it’s impossible to have many friends that aren’t somehow related to work. The other, which I found quite interesting, is a concept of “scriptlessness”, where people don’t know how to respond to having a job they think is meaningless simply because there’s no prescribed or socially-acceptable way of dealing with it.

Here again, Graeber circles back to his reasoning that neoliberal economic thinking is at fault. Part of the reason that nobody has noticed this epidemic of BS jobs, he argues, is that people simply refuse to believe that capitalism could produce such results.

I’m sympathetic to this line of argumentation, because this is what standard economic theory teaches us and the more educated one is, the less likely you are to question the wisdom of such a fundamental premise of the modern world. It’s become gospel (on the political left as much as the right) to assume that free markets force companies towards a relentless pursuit of efficiency, which means that any jobs created in a free market must be necessary or somehow demanded by market forces.

This kind of circular logic reminds me of the scene from Vice where Dick Cheney argues for why the United States can not be accused of torturing its prisoners:

Cheney: “We believe the Geneva Convention is open to… interpretation.”

Tenet: “What exactly does that mean?”

Addington: “Stress positions, waterboarding, confined spaces, dogs.”

Rumsfeld: “We’re calling it enhanced interrogation.”

Bush: “We’re sure none of this fits under the definition of torture?”

Addington: “The U.S. doesn’t torture.”

Cheney: “Therefore, if the U.S. does it, by definition, it can’t be torture.”


If you imagine David Graeber to be a cat making a meal out of some sorry animal, the first three chapters are where he fusses over the location and licks the carcass clean of hair, feathers and other detritus. The fourth, fifth and sixth chapters are where Graeber really digs his teeth into the meat of the issue and goes to town. And this is also where his own self-assured political and moral leanings begin to come through more clearly.

He begins by tackling the arguments that seek to justify BS jobs, and shows that people who defend such jobs as simply a reflection of market demand and/or government regulation are speaking out of their rear ends.

It’s extremely unlikely that government regulation caused private sector administrative jobs to be created at twice the rate as it did within the government itself. In fact, the only reasonable interpretation of these numbers is precisely the opposite: public universities are ultimately answerable to the public, and hence, under constant political pressure to cut costs and not engage in wasteful expenditures

He points out that historically, BS jobs have been confined to a few sectors – most prominently, in the legal profession as in Dickens’ Bleak House. They rose in prominence as businessmen and corporations raised the profile of adminstrative tasks at the expense of actual, physical labour through concepts like “scientific management”, and the resulting emphasis on middle managers and supervisors led to corporate overlords usurping power from factory unions, teachers and nurses through the creation of new and entirely pointless professional-managerial positions. Graeber points to the current state of affairs, where banks derive most of their profits from fees and penalties, and car companies make more money from interests on car loans than from actually selling cars.

“Efficiency” has come to mean vesting more and more power to managers, supervisors and other presumed efficiency experts, so that actual producers have almost zero autonomy. At the same time, the ranks and orders of managers seem to reproduce themselves endlessly.

Graeber sees the new system as akin to a revamped, facelifted Feudalism 2.0 that oppresses workers while rewarding overseers and supervisors. He proceeds to make his point by examining how feudalism worked historically, what changes made it less prevalent, and how capitalist logic brought it back from the dead. This section is positively riveting, and reads like the impassioned sermon of a fervid missionary. He uses economic data to show how even by libertarians’ own estimation, many of these jobs are a drain on society, destroying more capital than they are paid. For good measure, he also points out the role of religion by showing how God himself may be held responsible for some of this undue stress on having a job and working your ass off, even if it’s ultimately meaningless:

The Judeo-Christian God created the universe out of nothing. (This in itself is slightly unusual: most Gods work with existing materials.) His latter-day worshippers, and their descendants, have come to think of themselves as cursed to imitate God in this regard

All these factors, Graeber argues, mean that present-day managerial feudalism is maintained by a delicate balance of resentments. Here, he synthesizes his pointed understanding of the problem, in a form he calls the “paradox of modern work”:

  1. Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living
  2. Most people hate their jobs

The final section discusses some political implications of this trend towards bullshitization of jobs. Graeber also recommends a policy fix, but only hesitatingly and almost unwillingly, leading one to wonder why he needed to at all. Regardless, he leans heavily in favour of universal basic income as a possible cure for the proliferation of bullshit jobs. After all, who would even bother working a BS job if they didn’t have to worry about feeding their kids or taking care of medical expenses?

In the main, Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is not to be read for its policy proposals or even for the role of politicoreligious institutions in creating the economic structures we’re saddled with today. In my opinion, the book must be read as a critique of the popular discourse surrounding the social role of jobs and what work ought to be. On this front, the book is par excellence. Political theorists can argue about whether this discourse is because of politics, or drives political incentives. And religious scholars can debate whether religious scripture condones or militates against it. But for most of the rest of us, the ideas provided by David Graeber form a solid bedrock to build better relationships with our jobs.

Categories
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
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 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.