Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Road to Nehru-Liaquat Pact and the aftermath: The choices and decisions

In the lives of nations there are events that’ll continue to echo and shape destinies continuously. For Germany it is Nazism, for America it is the Civil War, for Russia it is the Revolution and for India it is the partition of the sub-continent along religious lines. 

The Nehru-Liaquat pact, signed nearly 70 years ago by Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, was cited by India’s home minister Amit Shah while piloting a controversial amendment to how India awards citizenship to refugees, has attracted attention. The pact, Nehru justly claimed, pulled India and Pakistan from a precipice of war that was sure to bring widespread destruction. What drove the countries to such brinkmanship, what were the choices, why did these two leaders compromise and what did the pact accomplish?

Nehru lamented then that little do many Indians realize how close India came to imploding and disintegrating. It is true even today. Distance of time and paucity of good academic writing for popular consumption on the subject of partition has masked the complexity of that tumultuous era and in many ways even minimized the impact of the human toll reducing it some dramatic pictures depicting mile long caravans of impoverished refugees and vultures feeding off carcasses. The tragedy ran deeper and brief recounting of some lesser known aspects will help us understand the Nehru-Liaquat pact better.

The Greatest Migration

Nearly 12 million Hindus and Muslims crossed the borders and nearly a million perished in riots and the migration itself. The two countries “had to resettle, feed and house a group as large as the total population of Australia”. “This was not simply an ‘exchange’ of population or a straightforward swap. In the months following Independence, Pakistan lost its bankers, merchants, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs”. In Indian cities Muslim craftsmen and shop owners, now ostracized by Hindus, migrated. Cash outflow from banks across borders in an already impoverished economy plunged the countries into poverty. 

The plan to partition the assets was based on 80-20 basis with 80% going to India. Across colonial India in government offices trays, chairs, paper weights were split. In libraries books were torn to adhere to 80-20. But that was not all. “India had found it necessary to jump civil servants perhaps three grades to fill secretariat vacancies” and “Pakistan had to advance them five grades”. Post partition Pakistan, compared to India, had “fewer bankers, fewer traders, fewer mechanics”. Pakistan “inherited less than 10% of the sub-continent’s steel output and manufacturing capability”.

Refugees crossing borders carried stories of massacres to their new homelands and inflamed local population. “Partition was a modern event, the technology of the press was fully utilized to promote killing and pressmen and propagandists played their part in partition violence behind typewriters as bureaucratic killers in word if not in deed.”

All this carnage was unfolding as Europe and the West were barely coming out of a World War that laid waste large parts of several continents and tens of millions had died. The tragedy in India barely registered in the conscience of the world. The International Red Cross had left India already and a UN covenant to protect refugees would not come about until 1951. Pimps, brothel owners and pedophiles plagued refugee camps even as governments, with scarce resources, struggled to cope with the scale of efforts. 

Refugees, in any era, destabilize local economy, governments and treasuries are taxed, labor market gets skewed and it never matters that the person who arrives speaks the same language and worships the same God. India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh refused to take in refugees from Pakistan, presumably HIndus. When non-Muslim Sindhis landed in Mumbai the local government was not thrilled. 

A constant criticism of Nehru was the centralization of the economy. A key determinant factor was the role government had to play in rehabilitating the lives of refugees. Creation of jobs, welfare centers for women and children and orphanages were all organized by governments touching the lives of many millions. This is often forgotten in analyzing the economics of the Nehru era.

The complexity of the era is best exemplified by the decision of India, in September 1949, to devalue its currency to be in lock step with the Pound Sterling while Pakistan did not do so and to Pakistanis it was the most popular decision when the country demonstrated strength against India. “Indians need to give Rs 144 for Rs 100 in Pakistani currency” was a popular retry. Currency devaluation and halting of trade brought conferences related to evacuee properties also to a halt. A labyrinthine set of events if there ever was one. 

Ever since Gandhi’s ‘Calcutta Miracle’ the violence during partition was largely in the western front in the Punjab region. Military historian Steven Wilkinson identified a causal relationship between high incidence of riots and presence of military ex-servicemen in a region and Punjab had lots of them. 

On 20th December 1949 policemen, reportedly in search of communists, entered Khulna, a village in East Pakistan and killed a Hindu, triggering violence against Hindus. Now, the East started exploding.

‘The Forgotten Conflagration’

Military historian Srinath Raghavan called the violence in Bengal ‘The Forgotten Conflagration’ because of its relative lack of significance compared to Kashmir, the integration of Hyderabad and violence in Punjab.

Following the Khulna episode reprisals began in West Bengal and Muslims left for East Pakistan by the thousands. A cycle of violent reprisals set in as Hindus were in turn massacred in the East and they started streaming into West Bengal. Refugees, both sides claimed, numbered in tens of thousands. 

Historian Pallavi Raghavan adds an interesting backdrop to the Nehru-Liaquat pact. By January 1950 Nehru started floating the idea of a ‘non-war pact’ with Pakistan and started, with Liaquat, a flurry of communications totaling over 200 telegrams in one year. The surprising part is that while the attempt for a non-war pact eventually floundered the Nehru-Liaquat pact for Bengal crises happened. 

Popular understanding of that era is that the two nations were implacable foes but Pallavi establishes that the idea for a non-war pact was actually seriously considered in both countries and not dismissed outright. This amidst a time when hostility towards the other country ran high amongst the public and even policy circles. 

Even as he pursued a non-war pact Nehru, disappointed with the sanguine approach of Liaquat to escalating tensions in Bengal, issued orders to mobilize the army and refused to accede to a request to disallow refugees from East Pakistan into India. 

Nehru proposed that Liaquat and he jointly tour afflicted areas but was turned down. His call for a declaration to condemn the atrocities was also met with silence from Liaquat. Both Liaquat and Nehru were increasingly facing domestic pressures to go to war. Nehru steadfastly refused to consider that the only choices were war or population exchange. By now many in India, including Sardar Patel, were demanding that India, in retaliation to Hindus being chased from East Pakistan, send Muslims from Bengal. A ‘population exchange’. The very idea was abhorrent to Nehru. Nehru resisted the choice of war or population exchange as false choices and pursued the diplomatic track.

Sardar Patel and others also pushed the idea of demanding territory from Pakistan in response to the tens of thousands that were streaming into India. To Nehru this was fantasy because, as he correctly cautioned, it would mean all out war in Eastern and Western fronts with Pakistan. No one other than Nehru worried about the cost of war. But Nehru had his limits too. 

Addressing the nation on 3rd March 1950 Nehru said, “Anyone who knows me should know that i hate war…But to talk complacently of peace, when there is no peace and when something worse than war is possible is to be blind to facts”. He also added that the crisis was “outcome of the very nature of Pakistan: minorities in a religious state were bound to lack full sense of citizenship and security”. Concerns that echo eerily in today’s situation in India. Later Nehru in a letter to Rajagopalachari wrote, “Even I, with all my abhorrence of war and my appreciation of its consequences cannot rule it out completely”. 

Even as Nehru was signaling the seriousness of military action by moving troops the press in Bengal fueled war mongering. The Amrita Bazaar Patrika led the charge in editorials and even conducting an opinion poll asking if readers favored war, 82.7 % responded yes. Nehru fumed and asked the administration to clamp down on press reports. The crises continued to spiral and pressure Nehru. 

On 17th March 1950 Nehru addressed the parliament and was roundly criticized. Opposition to Nehru mounted within Congress party led by Sardar Patel. Nehru had earlier offered to resign and go to Pakistan as an individual akin to Gandhi’s idea before he was assassinated. Now, Nehru renewed his threat to resign. An aging and sick Patel turned him down and, once again, became an ally. Nehru had a competitive spirit of standing up to challengers and knew well that the party would not countenance his resignation. Second only to Gandhi the most popular pan-Indian leader was Nehru. There was a time when India loved Nehru.

Though Liaquat exuded confidence in public about meeting India’s military challenge the reality of India’s military superiority compelled him to negotiate and he took up yet another offer from Nehru to negotiate a pact. Liaquat arrived in New Delhi and on 8th April 1950, after a week of negotiations and 11 drafts later, the Nehru-Liaquat pact was signed. 

The Pact and After-Effects

The key provisions of the pact were that minorities commission will be setup in each country, cabinets in East & West Bengal and Assam to include representatives from minorities, evacuees returning back by December 30th would get the homes they left behind, forced conversions will not be recognized, adult refugees can carry cash up to Rs 150 each and a child could carry Rs 75 each.

Hindu fundamentalist leader Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Bengali K.C. Neogy resigned from Nehru’s cabinet expressing dissatisfaction towards the pact. Nehru’s biographer Sarvepalli Gopal pays glorious tribute to Sardar Patel for returning to the role Gandhi had asked of him, supporting Nehru. Patel championed the pact to skeptics in West Bengal. Nehru returned the courtesy and acknowledged, “Vallabhai has been a brick during these days”.

Nehru himself was aware that the pact would not satisfy all or solve the problems completely. Nehru’s letter, on 15th April, to chief ministers, a tradition he created and maintained, recounted the dangers of war and how war was almost a possibility. Rejecting the charge of appeasement he wrote, “If anything that is not war is appeasement, then perhaps we have appeased. It would be equally true to say that Pakistan has tried to appease us. If an attempt to prevent a reversion to barbarism is appeasement, then perhaps the charge is true”. 

Writing again to chief ministers, on 2nd May, Nehru spoke candidly of how the exodus had fallen and then risen since migration was more streamlined now. He also highlighted that while minorities felt safer than before to stay back in the countries of residence they also feared for the future. Of the 3.64 million Hindu migrants who had entered India in 1950, some 1.77 million felt encouraged enough to return.

Evaluating Nehru and the Pact

It is a common refrain today to characterize Sardar Patel as some strongman who’d have taken the battle to the enemy, that is Pakistan, whereas Nehru was effete and a dreamy idealist. While Nehru was no war monger it is a complete mistake to cast him like an idealist peacenik. Whether it was crushing Communist led insurgency within India or accepting war as an option to be exercised Nehru had a hawkish side too. On the contrary Patel lacked Nehru’s vision and moral compass.

From dictators to democratic leaders across history pursuing a peace pact is often considered a braver course of action. It is wrong to suppose that a diplomatic course is a sign of weakness or misguided idealism. A conservative hawk like Ronald Reagan pursued eliminating nuclear weapons with arch enemy Soviet Russia. Harry Truman fired a legendary general to control the spiraling Korean crises. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed peace treaties when no one thought that those warring parties would even meet in the same room. Signing treaties for cessation of hostilities is more a western tradition from antiquity and not quite prevalent in Indian history and this is probably also why Indians fail to appreciate what Nehru achieved.

During peace pacts compromises are made and no statesman will gloat that he forced the other side to capitulate. During the Cuban Missile Crisis while John F. Kennedy postured in public about standing up the Soviet regime in private his brother Robert Kennedy was bartering missiles located in Turkey as a price for Khrushchev to remove the missiles. 

Military strategist George Kennan, the architect of the containment strategy, disillusioned during the Korean war, wrote, “Only the diplomatic historian, it seems to me, working from the leisure and detachment of a later day, will be able to unravel the incredible tangle and reveal the true aspect of the various factors and issues involved”. Srinath Raghavan’s “War and Peace in Modern India” is one such attempt that does justice to Nehru and the complexity of that entanglement. 

The decline of Hindu population in today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh and especially the massacre of thousands of Hindus during the riots preceding the liberation of Bangladesh are often cited as a failure of the pact and Nehru is blamed for, yet again, his idealism. The failure is Pakistan’s not that of India’s or Nehru’s.

Pakistan was cursed by the untimely and early demise of Jinnah and the short lived leadership of Liaquat Ali Khan who was assassinated just a year after the pact with Nehru. Liaquat who was not a popular leader “used executive powers to impose central rule on recalcitrant provinces” and such acts created a climate of alienation in Pakistan. Nehru’s relative youth, physical fitness and longevity coupled with his unmatched intellect and idealism provided invaluable stability to India while Pakistan stumbled into a morass of dictatorship. 

Steven Wilkinson’s masterful study of how India and Pakistan took different approaches to the role of army vis-a-vis the state portrays Nehru, in particular, as sagacious and forward looking while his counterparts who spared no thought let the country slip into the grip of the army. 

Nehru had a whirlwind trip to US in 1949, before the crises, when he was feted across the cities and Eisenhower, as President of Columbia University, honored him with a honorary Ph.D but the visit was also a disaster because America expected Nehru and India to be a meek suppliant which Nehru refused to be. Post-Crises, stung by his inability to stand up to India’s military superiority, Liaquat too visited the US but unlike Nehru he was clear that the US can hold Pakistan almost as a vassal state. 

Why would Nehru even try to have a pact with Pakistan? One should study geo-political history, notably the Cold War history of US-Soviet relationship to understand how fixed perceptions and prejudices can stifle possibilities for cooperation or peace.

When we contextualize the trajectory of Pakistan’s history and it’s failure to standby the pact it is clear that the failure was neither Nehru’s nor India’s. Even today discussions of how minorities are treated in Pakistan are often juxtaposed with how Muslims are treated in India and Muslims are reminded that they should be grateful to Hindus. 

To Nehru how India treated its minorities had nothing, whatsoever, to do with how Hindus were treated elsewhere. He wrote to Patel, “The belief that retaliation is a suitable method to deal with Pakistan, or what happens in Pakistan is growing. That is the surest way to ruin…That is surely not the way to protect minorities”. 

That Nehru’s philosophy about protecting minorities was the governing philosophy of his cabinet and his successor is evident in the reply that Sardar Swaran Singh, one time member of Nehru’s cabinet too, gave as External Affairs minister to a query raised in the Rajya Sabha in 1966 about whether Pakistan has, unlike India, failed protect minorities. Swaran Singh replied, “ The hon. Member would no doubt be aware that in our Constitution we gave equality of treatment to every person, whether of the majority community or minority community, whatever may be his religion, and we are wedded to pursue this policy according to our Constitution— equality of every Indian irrespective of religion or caste or creed—and it is our determination to pursue this policy whatever Pakistan does”. Nehru would’ve been proud of Swaran Singh.

The no-war pact proposal failed because Pakistan insisted on identifying mediatory organizations and India balked at it for valid reasons and some extraneous reasons too. However since the pact was discussed publicly both governments decided to publish the correspondence, that too simultaneously, to avoid one side or the other making incorrect claims. While India rejected mediations on topics outside Kashmir the World Bank did mediate the Indus Waters Agreement. The no-war pact idea kept resurfacing twice by Nehru and twice, in later years, by Pakistan. Palace Raghavan makes the case that we should look beyond habitual hostility in understanding the Indo-Pak relationship. 


It is specious to use Nehru-Liaquat pact to justify the Citizenship Amendment Bill that imposes a religion as a criteria to selectively confer citizenship on refugees. The very idea would’ve been abhorrent to Jawaharlal Nehru. There was a time when a bill was moved in the Constituent Assembly by a member of stature, Anathasayanam Ayyangar, to “for the separation of religion from politics and for India becoming a secular state”. Replying on the bill Nehru said, “we must have it clearly in our minds and in the mind of the country that the alliance of religion and politics in the shape of communalism is a most dangerous alliance”.

Alas we now live in an age when members of the ruling party chant “Jai Shri Ram” when a Muslim member of parliament rises to take oath. The Prime Minister says that some Indians fear the chant “Jai Shri Ram”. No, Mr. Prime Minister, Indians hailed as Mahatma a man who died calling out to Rama. 

India needs to be reclaimed in the name of Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar and be home to all as equal citizens. 


  1. War and Peace in Modern India - Srinath Raghavan
  2. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan — Yasmin Khan
  3. An American Witness to India’s Partition — Phillips Talbot
  4. Nehru: A Political Biography — Michael Brecher
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Volume 2) — Sarvepalli Gopal
  6. Patel: A Life — Rajmohan Gandhi
  7. Army and Nation — Steven Wilkinson
  8. The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945-1965 — Paul M. McGarr
  9. Nehru’s India — ed. Mushirul Hasan
  10. Letters for a Nation: Jawaharlal Nehru — ed. Madhav Kosla
  11. Geirge F. Kennan: An American Life — John Lewis Gaddis
  12. Text of Nehru-Liaquat Pact https://mea.gov.in/Portal/LegalTreatiesDoc/PA50B1228.pdf 
  13. Sardar Swaran Singh reply in Rajya Sabha http://rsdebate.nic.in/rsdebate56/bitstream/123456789/527138/1/PQ_57_16081966_S454_p2636_p2640.pdf 
  14. The Making of the India-Pakistan Dynamic: Nehru, Liaquat, and the No War Pact Correspondence of 1950 —- Pallavi Raghavan https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/091C9228053BF0028CD13DB7B75F2C1B/S0026749X15000554a.pdf/making_of_the_indiapakistan_dynamic_nehru_liaquat_and_the_no_war_pact_correspondence_of_1950.pdf 

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Poona Pact: Myths About Gandhi and The Calumnies. A few Random Thoughts.

No discussion of Gandhi raises as much passion as the Gandhi-Ambedkar confrontation that culminated on September 25th 1932 in the Poona Pact. This blog started as a response to a comment I saw on Facebook and is not a ccomprehensive or even coherent narration of the events related to that pact. I've merely, as the title states, shared a few thoughts. Random thoughts. 

The comment that triggered me to write said that Gandhi did not sign the Poona Pact and that showed he refused to take responsibility for a pact he engineered. 

For the millionth time I'll say this, feel free to reject Gandhi and the pact with your own rationale but don't interpret Gandhi through your lens of Ambedkarite hatred. That's like interpreting Ambedkar using Arun Shourie. Do unto others what you'd like others to do unto you.

Gandhi's life is all about taking responsibility and being accountable. There's not a single bone or cell in Gandhi's body that'd support evading responsibility. Whether it is asking a British judge to impose the maximum sentence or going on a fast to atone for the violence of some during a national agitation evading responsibility is simply not Gandhi. 

Gandhi and Ambedkar, at the time of the Poona pact, were leaders of different stature and different influences. Too much is made of Gandhi's stature and the conflict is presented as some David versus Goliath struggle with Ambedkar as David. 

Gandhi's Salt March (12th March - 6th April 1930)  had mobilized the nation, shaken the pillars of an Empire and attained worldwide attention culminating in, what Churchill memorably described, the "the one time inner-temple lawyer and now seditious half-naked fakir, a type well known in the East, striding up the steps of the viceregal palace and negotiation on equal terms with the King Emperor's representative". Gandhi negotiated with Irwin as the representative of a nation. Such moments thrill us into forgetting that barely within a few months of that pact Gandhi attended the Second Roundtable Conference (Sep-Dec 1931) where his representation of India was challenged by Ambedkar and others. While Churchill identified that Gandhi was becoming the voice of the nation let us not forget that too often his voice was challenged by other Indians, often to the glee of the Colonial regime. This is not to mean that those who dissented or stood against Gandhi were stooges of imperialism though such stooges did exist too. Certainly Ambedkar's motivations were different. 

Gandhi's halo of being a voice of the nation was very short lived. Gandhi, upon his return from Second Roundtable Conference, was diminished in stature and the regime conveniently arrested him on 4th January 1932. A month ago he was visiting the King and now he was a guest at His Majesty's jail. 

During the fast at Yervada on Sep 20th-25th 1932 India did reconnect with Gandhi emotionally. And that was the leverage Gandhi had over Ambedkar. However, that reconnection too frayed after the pact was signed when upper caste Hindu India was aghast at Gandhi and unleashed its fury on the Mahatma during his tour to eradicate untouchability. Gandhi's stature and his connection to India was as complex as the man himself. This is often missed. 

Ambedkar, certainly, was not, at that time, as nationally revered as Gandhi was and he was seen as the chief antagonist in the drama by many on the opposing side. However, he had his leverage too. Gandhi did NOT question the legitimacy of Ambedkar's representation of his people. If anything Gandhi only contested that he too was the representative of Dalits. Dalits can reject that but that was Gandhi's stance. During the negotiations the Ambedkar led faction remained dominant and disciplined. It is forgotten today that M.C. Rajah too had his own negotiations and Ambedkar refused to be aligned with him. 

The Poona negotiations, necessitated by Gandhi's fast and opposition to the separate electorate, were between upper caste Hindus that included Malaviya and Untouchables led by Ambedkar. It is unimaginable for Gandhi to have signed the pact on behalf of either party. The fast, despite what Dalits claim, was, at least in Gandhi's view, not against Dalits but for them in the larger sense and it was only against what he perceived as a scheme to perpetually segregate them from the mainstream of Hinduism. And as one who called himself a Dalit by choice it is inconceivable that he'd sign a pact as if he belonged to the other side. Whether he signed it or not he did not shy from the burden of what the pact meant and took the cause of Dalit emancipation to be above national liberation.

Dalits often bristle, with justification, at the idea of a Bania savior. But this is reality in India. Given the iron framework of casteism in India only a Gandhi could've even made a dent on behalf Dalits on the issue of caste. In 2019 a car driver of a backward caste refuses to step into the memorial at Keezhvenmani. This is the reality. Without Gandhi as ally Dalit cause would not have even made the progress that it did. In an analogous way it took a Kennedy and LBJ to turn MLK's dream into legislation. Hillary took heat for pointing that out. 

My good friend mentioned how Gandhi used fasting as a tool and almost was indignant that Ambedkar is being cast as one who took Gandhi to the  brink of his life. Whether one is a Gandhian or just an admirer of Gandhi if one understood Gandhi one would not fault, in the least bit, Ambedkar for what Gandhi inflicted upon himself. Both the upper caste Hindu panel and Ambedkar led untouchables negotiated almost with no thought of Gandhi dying though that possibility hung over their heads. And not a single leader in Gandhi's camp blamed Ambedkar for the possibility that Gandhi would die because the decision to fast was Gandhi's not Ambedkar's. 

Once the number of seats, 148, that'd be reserved was agreed upon the sticking point was the conduct of a referendum about whether the scheme was working or not. Ambedkar wanted 10 years to be the period after which the referendum was conducted. Gandhi felt that that was undue delay and became adamant on conducting a referendum within a year or at least 5 years. When Ambedkar dug in his heels Gandhi flung down the gauntlet "there you have it, 5 years or my life". 

Was Gandhi blackmailing Ambedkar? In the crude sense of the term absolutely yes. Gandhi knew full well what his death would mean and it was precisely that leverage he used. But then that is EXACTLY the leverage he used time and again whether his fasts were against the colonizer or his fellow Indians who wanted to kill each other. It was that leverage that prevented West Bengal from sliding into a civil war amidst a genocidal bloodshed. 

British viceroys were always irritated at Gandhi's pose of piety and felt it was a cloak for the shrewd Bania who negotiated with the tenacity of a haggler at a Persian bazaar. Dalits, today, are essentially hewing to that view and it is a patently uncharitable one. As uncharitable as Arun Shourie casting Ambedkar as merely a stooge of the Colonial government who wanted to thwart the nationalist struggle with his focus on narrow aims.

Whether it was his Calcutta fast or Poona fast Gandhi's attitude was always that, if he died fruitlessly because the outcome eluded him, it is what God ordained. Gandhi wrote farewell notes on the eve of the Poona fast. To his old friend Herman Kallenbach he wrote, "if god has more work to take from this body it will survive the fiery ordeal". During the Delhi fast, his last, to stamp down communal riots as his health declined when his physician Sushila Nayyar told him that  his kidneys were failing he replied, "then my faith in Rama is incomplete". As I type that I am only reminded of Christ at the Garden of Gethsemane, aware of the bloody ordeal about to befall him, pleading with his Father "take away this clip of sorrow. Nevertheless thy will not mine". 

The dynamic of Gandhi's fast should be understood before terms like 'blackmail' are used. Gandhi's fasts always were predicated on the faith that the other side, he did not think of them as enemies, will have a modicum of humanity and would relate to him in some corner of their heart. When Rajagopalachari, called Gandhi's 'conscience keeper', asked him, during the Calcutta fast, if he is embarking on a futile act against murderous thugs Gandhi replied that his fast was aimed at not the thugs but the hearts of those who manage the thugs. Gandhi would be the first to object to blaming Ambedkar if he had died in the fast. 

I also believe firmly that Gandhi, if he had had even a few breaths left in him, he'd have pardoned Nathuram Godse and possibly even thanked him for according the kind of death that he desired. Gandhi is not made of common clay.

Gandhi's tour of India campaigning against untouchability was epic in scope and reactions. Hindu India even in Gandhi's day had a more tenuous relationship with Gandhi than what is commonly understood today. To the upper caste Hindus Gandhi was a Mahatma as long as he was spouting pieties, chanting the name of Rama, singing Vaishnava Janato, calling on their better angels and above all directing his energies to toppling the colonial regime but whenever Gandhi deviated from the script by talking about reforms or eradicating untouchability or cleaning toilets used by untouchables they'd ether ignore him or reject him. This continues till today. This is the lot of any prophet in any age. This is true, ironically, even of E.V. Ramaswamy. Of all the things that E.V.R preached only his neo-nazi anti-brahmanism took root in Tamil Nadu and all his other causes, chiefly atheism, were thrown into the dustbin by those who call him their god today. Sanatana Hindus hurled abuses and even made attempts on Gandhi's life. Amongst the untouchables, the Mahars, members of Ambedkar's caste carried out black flag rallies against Gandhi. All that said that tour and the awakening it caused were the embers that inspired a free India to confront the problem of caste.

Did Gandhi need Ambedkar to teach him about the ills of untouchability? Not at all. But what Gandhi needed, and Ambedkar provided, at a historical juncture, was a catalytic alchemy that made Gandhi put the nationalist struggle on the back burner and turn to confronting a millennia old leviathan that was choking the body politic of India. At a crucial juncture Gandhi's efforts turned from merely liberating a nation to emancipating a people, all people, and making the goal of egalitarianism the goal of a nation that'd one day be free. 

People like Ambedkar have earned their place in history for giving history a nudge. While Gandhi had always talked against untouchability and the unfairness heaped on Dalits the Gandhi after Poona pact was a more radicalized Gandhi who put eradication of untouchability front and center of his liberation struggle. Without Ambedkar's nudge that'd not have happened. 

A Periyarist, a habitual hater of Gandhi, would often argue that if only Gandhi and Nehru had acceded to Jinnah's request of loose federalism partition could've been avoided. A nonsensical argument but guess who was against loose federalism. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a key proponent of a very strong center in his role as architect of the Constitution of free India. Ambedkar distrusted federalism because he feared States would dilute the protections against untouchability. 

A full and impartial history of the Poona pact is yet to be written. Jaffrelot, for example, is blunt that Poona pact deprived Dalits of political power that, he is certain, Separate electorate would have given. This is now an article of faith amongst the naysayers or even those who could be academically objective. I find this to be a stretch. 

Political power eludes the Dalits but we're assuming that Separate electorates would've worked like a charm. That, in my opinion, is a leap of faith. I need more research but I'll say this for now, based on my American experience of Democracy, Separate electorates would've led to segregated constituencies enshrining a "separate but equal" phenomenon that was equal only on paper. Gerrymandering of constituencies would have literally ghettoized the Dalits. Even with separate electorates Muslims, thanks to Jinnah, clamored for Pakistan. It did not do much good in their own opinion. Democracy rests on the principle of representation of a peoples will through votes. How would free India have conducted elections that could be called representative democracy for separate electorates? Elections and representative democracy are a really wide subject and this aspect is often forgotten in the debates around Poona pact. 
Gandhi, to be fair, was not thinking of the above, because those objections I outlined were problems of later day American democracy. Gandhi's chief objection was that separate electorate would effectively sever Dalits from Hinduism. That fear was not without merit. This argument is used as a cudgel against Gandhi and casting him as an agent of upper caste Hinduism. This is bollocks. Ambedkar tossed and turned on the question of which religion to choose for Dalits for their en-masse conversion and eventually decided to not choose the obvious choices, Islam or Christianity, precisely because that'd be a more complete separation from Hinduism and he was not sure how many Dalits would follow. He then chose Buddhism which was often seen as birthed in the womb of Hinduism. Now, how many Dalits actually choose Buddhism? Not many. So is it fair to cast Ambedkar as wannabe protector of Hinduism who did not care what his  people really wanted? Of course not. 

The story of a nation coming into being is a complex one by itself and when the nation happens to one as complex as India, a nation like no other at that time, and even today, very complex choices were made by equally complicated people. More than unidimensional villains we come across a dizzying array of characters who came in many shades of villainy and heroism. Of those, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Jinnah, to name a few, take the prize for complexity in that order. 

Some day, hopefully in a few months, I hope to write a fuller account of the events leading unto and after the Poona pact taking into account wider questions of whether separate electorates would've really worked and Gandhi's actions. Oh, one final word, a Gandhi did sign the pact. It was Devadas Gandhi.


1. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India -- Joseph Lelyveld.
2. Gandhi: The years that changed the world - Ramachandra Guha
3. Dr. Ambedkar & Untouchables - Christophe Jaffrelot

4. Freedom at midnight - Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Fortnight in India: What I learned about Modi's India From India-Today, Economic Times and Sun T.V.

Whenever I visit any country I make it a habit to check local press and publications. I did so in India too, naturally. Just one issue of the weekly news magazine 'India Today' was sufficient to encapsulate the state of Modi's India. Thanks to my several hotel stays and the freely supplied 'Economic Times' I got a ringside view of Indian economy especially when the newly minted Nirmala Sitaraman was rolling out changes. Then a few days of watching Sun T.V. gave me the hope that one day BJP may actually romp home as a ruling party in Tamil Nadu or at least as a major ally to the ruling party. Here's what I learned.

India Today

I started reading India-Today back in the late 80s, during Rajiv Gandhi's administration, when it was a fortnightly sold at Rs 6. 'Frontline' from 'The Hindu' followed soon after. While Frontline hewed a left wing tilt India-Today tilted to the right. Prabhu Chawla and Swapan Dasgupta from India-Today are now effectively BJP's cheer leaders along with the likes of Indian Express's Tavleen Singh. Arun Shourie is disenchanted with Modi after being a member of the Vajpayee cabinet. All these journalists were united in their disdain and hatred of the Congress regimes. To be fair Rajiv and Congress did do their share to alienate the press. Aroon Purie, editor of India-Today, was a Doon school classmate of Rajiv. With this backdrop the issue dated August 12th 2019 with a cover story "Unsold" about the economic crises affecting the auto-sector was interesting to me for not just the cover story but several other articles and I think the stories offer a snapshot of Modi's India. I'll provide excerpts from key articles. All excerpts are within quotes and anything without a quote is my opinion or information or paraphrasing.

Mutilating Right to Information Act

"India's Right to Information Act, recognized the world over as one of the most robust sunshine laws, has been mutilated". RTI, as the act is popularly known, was passed by Manmohan Singh's government in 2005, following several anti-corruption protest movements led by Anna Hazare that whipped up the middle class mostly. Those protests were key in promoting the idea that the Singh administration was mired in corruption. Yet, it was Singh who created this law that is now undone by the seemingly cleaner administration of Narendra Modi.

India-Today's article summed up not just the dangers of mutilating the act but more importantly how the government used its brute majority. "In the Lok Sabha, the NDA simply used its brute majority to ride roughshod over the objections raised by opposition benches. But in the Rajya Sabha, even though 15 political parties reportedly signed a motion to have the bill referred to a select committee, many backtracked on their demand during voting, fueling apprehensions about the pressure that was exerted by the ruling dispensation".

Drawing a distinction between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi the British weekly The Economist said that unlike Trump who wishes he can use the tax agencies to stifle opposition Modi actually can accomplish it. That is the pressure that India-Today is alluding to.

The Immigration Bogey

Modi and Amit Shah, like Trump, find it useful to stoke the problem of illegal immigration. The US, unlike India, at least, has a problem of real proportions. "Shah's threat", a story in the issue outlines, "to extend the National Register of Citizens from North Eastern states to the rest of the country doesn't square with the census data, which finds immigration rates to be below 0.5 percent in the majority of districts. Besides, many of these immigrants are of Indian origin who have returned from US, UK, Canada, Australia and the Gulf. The census figures belie the government's concern about illegal immigrants, even accounting for the under-reporting of 'illegals'.

Yatras and their costs

The hundreds of crores once spent by Indian government to subsidize the Haj pilgrimage was an irritant for the BJP foot soldier notwithstanding the fact that that subsidy was more to keep the state airline, the only approved carrier, afloat. That subsidy is now gone and there were no riots when it was withdrawn.

Nearly 301,000 pilgrims undertook the Amaranth eater this year costing the "J&K administration Rs 495.2 crores ($72 million)" and a deployment of "40,000 security personnel".

Aaya-Ram & Gaya-Ram

Party hopping politician Gaya Lal was pejoratively referred as "Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram". During the 2019 parliamentary elections Modi openly spoke of opposition party big-wigs waiting to cross over to BJP. While party hopping is not new to India that a PM would stoop to openly declare it at a rally was a new low even by the standards of Indian politics.

The title and subtitle of a story says it all. "A bitter aftertaste: After a spate of inductions of TMC leaders with a dubious past, the BJP is forced to rethink".

"Death of the Opposition"

A letter to the Vice President Venkiah Naidu, also the chairman of Rajya Sabha, signed by 17 opposition statement makes a startling factual accusation that is scary for anyone interested in the health of democracy and democratic norms. "The letter says 60 percent of the bills in the 14th Lok Sabha were referred to parliamentary committees. In the next one, 71 percent of the bills went to such committees. But in the 16th Lok Sabha, when Narendra Modi-led government came to power first, the figure dropped drastically to 26 percent. Now, in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha, 14 bills have been passed, but not a single one was sent to a house committee". The article blames the opposition party leadership for foisting family candidates to leadership. These leaders, unlike those who stood up to Indira Gandhi, rarely carry a political weight and are not up to the task.

The Auto-Sector Slowdown

Aroon Purie's editorial warned on the issue's first page, "Our government cannot afford to let this sector slide, with the prospect of massive layoffs, adding to the ranks of the unemployed. This has implications that go far beyond economics, it may even lead to social unrest".

India's auto-sector, valued at Rs 8.3 lakh crores, employs, directly or indirectly, 32 million people. "Ram Venkatramani, president of Automotive Component Manufacturers Association (ACMA), said that if improvements do not materialize, around 1 million jobs could be lost - 20 per cent of the total employment in that sector". "Overall sales" of vehicles has "fallen by almost 8 per cent". "The growth rates for both private and commercial vehicle sales are in the red".

Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bjaj Auto, was blunt, "there is no demand and no private investment - so where will growth come from? It doesn't fall from the heavens". This kind of blunt language is startling in the Modi era especially when it comes from a leader of a much respected Indian brand.

"Demonetisation", V.G. Ramakrishnan, "managing director of of Avanteum advisors" said, "left a mark on the psyche of consumers". A key factor behind the slowdown is that the Indian consumer is putting off purchase of even fast-moving consumable goods (FMCG), a key indicator of slowing down of purchasing power. Liquidity crises and lack of good credit reporting are affecting loans. Added to all that is the whimsical attitude in rolling out regulations. The Bharat Stage VI (BS-VI) regulations, new axle load norms, governmental push for increased use of electric vehicles have all contributed in pushing to the auto-sector to despair. Venkatramani told India-Today, "Changes are welcome, but what put us in a tizzy is the speed at which regulations are changing. It becomes difficult to predict when to invest and in what technology".

All the above paint a grim picture and raise a sharp question of an administration that it's supporters assiduously promote as the most business friendly government. For all the mocking of Nehruvian era of socialism Modi's finance minister is turning to that lethal arsenal of any government facing an economic crises, increasing government spending to boost consumer spending. The prohibition of government departments from purchasing new cars has been lifted and it appears that the government is all set to become the biggest consumer of the auto-sector. This is textbook socialism.

The Economic Times

Issues dated 20th August and 31st August of The Economic Times provided interesting perspectives. The front page on 20th August carried a warning from R.C. Bhargava that without government incentives the auto-sector may continue to suffer. Curiously the title used an American word, Motown, to denote India's auto sector.

In a similar vein another sector cried out for government help. "India's software export industry may lose out on its competitive edge due to falling incentives and rising tax rates, industry executives said and have asked the government to extend the policy benefits under the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) beyond April 2020; reduce corporate taxes for large companies and review the buyback tax introduced in the budget".

Continuing the trend of petitioning the government for relief from regulation or seeking help the nascent peer-to-peer lending firms have asked the government to relax the lender limit of Rs 10 lakh and allowing High Net Worth Individuals (HNI) to use the platforms.

Nishanth Vasudevan, head of Motilal Oswald Financial Services, had more warnings in an interview. The foreign investors, Vasudevan said, "feels letdown by the way they're treated" compared to China. Asked about current slowdown he said, "the correction which you're seeing is the actual decline in consumer spending". "Google search for a lot of durables is down by 15-20%". He also added that this is driven more by sentiment and that businesses may not be doing too bad and the expected tax receipts data would provide clarity. He did concede that the economy was growing only at 5.8%.

The editorial column calling for concerted policy action and urgent reforms blamed structural woes like subsidies. "India's share of global exports", the editorial said, "is just 1.7%". Essentially on the map of world trade India is less than a blip. Forget about being super power India is not even a power to reckon with at the global trade map.

On August 30th with executive fiat the finance minister announced the merger of "Ten PSBs into Four" (per The Economic Times headline on 31st). In one fell swoop India created four really mega banks. This runs completely counter to the US wariness of big banks and the desire in US policy making circles to breaking up big banks. US banking regulations, called Dodd-Frank regulations, promulgated after the financial crises of 2008 that almost destroyed the world's greatest economy agonizes in great detail about how to methodically unwind a too-big-to-fail financial institution. Indian journalism often leaves much to be desired and is more often just clerical writing and on this epochal event the reportage was pathetic.

The finance minister claimed that the criteria for the pairings of specific banks was driven by "tech-integration" capabilities rather than "geographical capability". Such rationale is unheard of and really no tech study was proffered. "Managing directors of these banks were informed of the merger decision earlier in the day by the the department of financial services even though discussions had been going on for some time". The reportage did not say at what organization levels discussions were held and what "going on for some time" meant. The managing directors presiding over hundreds of crores of depositor cash were informed like they were peons.

The editorial page of ET cheered the move saying it is in line with making India a $5 Trillion economy but cautioned on the lack of "supportive regulation". With the US crises serving as a caution a responsible newspaper, let alone one focused on economics, should have screamed first about the lack of regulation prior to such a move and scream about possible financial crises that could cripple the Indian economy. Note, India's economy if it faces a US style crises lacks many of the abilities that were at the disposal of US economy. Till date the government has shown absolutely no inclination to create a Dodd-Frank equivalent.

The issue dated August 31st announced the bank mergers on front page and along side carried dismal statistics on the economy with an equally prominent headline as the one for the merger news, "Meter Down: At 5%, Economic Growth at 6 yr Low in June Qtr. The editorial summary is grim: Manufacturing, around 16% of India's economy, collapsed totally: from growing more than 12% in Q1 of last year, to stalling at 0.6% now", "car sales have crashed to 20-year lows","Household consumption has also fallen","Mining, metals, minerals and so on are in a downward spiral", "Capacity utilization of companies below 80%". The editorial said that the only silver lining, if one looked for it, is that the "government is clearly not trying to hide the bad economic news". If that's the silver lining only god can save Indian economy.

State of Education

A recent ranking of universities worldwide showed that not one of India's coveted institutions have cracked the ranking above 300. Forget about cracking the top 10 or 50 or 100. A.M. Nik, chairman of Larsen and Toubro and head of National Skills Development Corporation in an interview with ET sounded beyond pessimistic.

Asked about Normal Sitaraman's call to foreign students to study in India Naik was dismissive saying, "problem is everybody is going out of the country and nobody is coming in. India has a few good educational institutions but they require a very high cut off which a lot of people can't get. We don't have good teachers and the education system itself has been watered down in line with the no-fail policy". "Finding the right teaching talent is the biggest problem. We need institutions to train teachers".

While Naik laments the very absence of good teaching the government thinks, per an article in ET on 20th August about the LEAP program, that lack of leadership skills amongst event good academicians is hurting India from making it big on global rankings. "Over the last 5 years 11 of the 40 central universities have seen inquiries, show cause notices and even sackings of vice-chancellors". Let that sink in for a moment. Nearly one-fourth of central universities are run by no good vice chancellors.

LEAP (Leadership for Academicians Program) started in 2018 with 269 has managed to identify 46 high-scorers, whatever that means, for leadership role. Again, think on that for a moment. In a country of a billion people a leadership program has found 46 'high-scorers'. Only god can save Indian education.

Institutional Corruption, Religious India and a Titular Prime Minister

When former finance minister P. Chidambaram was arrested BJP supporters openly celebrated it as engineered by Amit Shah, the home minister. This was supposed to be tit for tat for Amit Shah being arrested and exiled from his home state when Chidambaram was home minister. In Indian politics, the rule of law be damned, what is important is that your side gets tit-for-tat. On August 20th ET reported that two top ranking officials in National Investigating Agency were under investigation for blackmailing a business man in return for not falsely including his name in a terror-finance related case. The use of central agencies, particularly tax related and intelligence agencies, as puppets to settle political scores is now openly cheered by partisan supporters.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in an oped in ET dated 31st August wrote, "if not in word, then in sprit, what is being increasingly endorsed is the notion that if democracy is a collateral damage while strengthening the nation, so be it".

What is emboldening Modi? How did he muster this majority? Why is secularism almost dead in India today? Why is the notion of keeping religion private would never have a chance in India? Was secularism, as defined by modern liberalism, ever a reality in India? To find those answers let us turn briefly to statistics of India's tourism.

For all the wonderful heritage stretching back into more than a millennia and the country being populated by places of history and natural beauty India's place in world tourism, like it's place on world trade, is pathetic. While France and Spain lead the US with 89 and 83 million tourist visitors compared to 80 million for US when it comes to dollar value the US earns $214 billion compared to $67 million and $74 million respectively for France and Spain. India gets 17 million tourists and earns $29 million. B.K. Goswami, former Director General of tourism for Government of India, in a letter to ET points out that 90% of Indian tourism is domestic tourism and of that 80% is related to pilgrim tourism.

Indians are religious to an extent that is not seen in the Western world and they flaunt it. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that but that is a key factor in the rise of Narendra Modi. Turn on Tamil Nadu's cable TV channels, even the one run by the state's principal political party that pays lip service to secularism and atheism, one is drowned in religious propaganda. All channels run some form astrology related programs in the morning. The obnoxious serials freely load the stories with religious, mostly Hindu, themes or references. Thanks to Sun T.V. and the religious programs it is running it is possible that the BJP might actually become a significant player in the state or even possibly a ruling party in its own right.

Now, many may laugh at the prospect of BJP becoming a major party in Tamil Nadu but my tour made me think that. As I said in my last blog I'll turn, in my next and last blog on the tour, to the religious fervor that is gripping the state and the reasons, in my opinion, as to why Narendra Modi, despite such dismal economy, romped home with a brute majority in the parliamentary elections.

One thing is clear though, if anyone suggests even remotely that they support Modi only for economic governance or mostly for that reason and if they are still sticking with that reason they owe an answer to those who think it is hogwash.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Fortnight in India: Lots of History, Architecture, Artless Cities and Reading Habits of Indians

After nearly ten years I visited India, again, as tourist last month. When I last visited India, for touring, in 2010 Manmohan was into his second term. Though I had made several visits in 2014-15 they were for medical emergencies and involved no touring. Narendra Modi had just then wrested power after a decade long reign by Manmohan Singh. Modi has recently won a massive victory that all but decimated the entire opposition and is set to rule for the next 5 years. What did I see?

Landing in a New India

V.S. Naipaul's trilogy on India started with "An area of darkness", a book that still riles up Indians and continued, slightly mellowed but equally offending to many Indians in "A Wounded civilization" and finally concluded in the now dated but thematically relevant, "India: A million mutinies now". Naipaul, wrote 'A wounded civilization' as India's democracy was under assault by Indira's Emergency. He lamented, "nothing beyond food - and survival - had as yet become an object of ambition". Nearly a half century later India has come a long way from that. The country now can feed itself, says no to foreign aid, even offered a billion dollar finance to Russia, looks to conquer the space, careers for graduates now have multiplied from the binary choice of Doctor or Engineer and the economy can no longer be jeered at as 'Hindu rate of growth'. That is the India of 2019 I stepped into.

Compared to the days when visa application involved a distasteful visit to Indian consulate now I opted for electronic visa that worked like a charm. The application and approval were pretty simple and at immigration check it was a breeze. I feared, this being my first time with e-visa, some serious trouble but there was none.

My travel this time to Jaipur and Bengaluru was made possible by the availability of flight connections. Air travel has been truly democratized in India. Gone are the days when air travel was meant for the high and mighty. The budget airline Indigo really serves well with good connections and good service. For all my bookings I had used the 'Fast Forward' service that promised delivery of checked baggage to be prioritized over others and it was delivered as promised. In 2010 traveling by train was a nightmare due to the stench and cockroaches that ran around. In 2019 I was spared that. Mostly youngsters, girls and boys alike, were the ones doing all jobs. It was heartening to see young girls go around with great confidence as air hostesses and other roles at all hours of the day. However, India's airports, especially the Chennai airports, are completely inadequate to accommodate the fast expanding clientele. Even the business class lounges were ho-hum in Chennai.

Road travel is certainly better than what was possible 20 years ago. There are more highways, by Indian standards, but literally no hygienic rest areas for travelers to use on long trips. On the Jaipur-Agra highway cows literally travel like they own the roads and they're aplenty. My driver, a proud Hindu, said it was because now many are afraid to sell cows for meat they simply let loose cows they cannot afford to continue keeping. The road signs in and around Jaipur in Hindi were just transliteration of English words like 'Lane' etc. In Tamil Nadu English words are more often translated.

The hospitality at the hotels I stayed (a Taj, a Marriott and a Hilton) was beyond exemplary. At these luxury hotels the staff go above and beyond to make the visitor comfortable. Whether it is the chauffeurs or even the ill informed guides I've absolutely no complaint about anyone on a personal level. They were all polite to a fault and many where very aware of online reviews and handed cards requesting good reviews. I did oblige and they richly deserved it. The hotel amenities and buffet choices can make any western tourist feel completely at home. I splurged on Rajasthani and Indian delicacies. I did not come to Jaipur to eat croissants and bagels.

Jaipur and Belur-Halebid

The Amer fort near Jaipur was fabulous. The elaborate courtyards, the exquisite Sheesh Mahal studded with mirrors, the baths and toilets, the harems and their secret passageways transport the visitor to a different era.

The sprawling temples in Thanjavur, Belur and Halebid were breathtaking. Though I've been to the Big Temple in Thanjavur a hundred times the recent study of the Chola empire made me the see the temple anew. Now the fort like structure of the temple became readily apparent and I remembered historians drawing attention to the fact that temples were not just temples but literally fortresses.

The City Palace in Jaipur, constructed by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II in 18th century, is kind of typical with large courtyards and mirrors as stucco in halls elaborately designed.  Two large silver urns, the largest of it's kind in the world, are exhibited in this palace. Those urns, with water from Ganges, were taken by Maharaja Sawai Macho Singh II when he went to attend Edward VII's coronation in 1901, so he could use it daily during his stay abroad. I was reminded of how Gandhi was mocked for taking two goats with him to London when he went for the Round Table Conference because he'd only drink goat's milk.

Silver Urn used to transport water from Ganges
Whenever I travel to a place I try to visit any book store that I come across to find books of local interest. I was immensely happy to grab a copy of a book on Jaipur by legendary historian Jadunath Sarkar. The preface suggested that Jadunath, who wrote the book at the behest of the Rajput royal household, was open to downplaying the collaboration of the Rajput royals with the Mughal regimes of yore. The preface added that such sensitivities are now muted and the book now published is the definitive edition. It is disheartening to see a historian of Sarkar's caliber willing to mute pages of history and it raises, yet again, the question of how much of Indian history has been truthfully told.

As we crossed a posh locality of Jaipur I was informed that that's where the Chief Minister, his cabinet and top state officials have their bungalows. I was suddenly reminded of my own town Thanjavur where likewise the city judge, top police official, public works department official and collector have their bungalows on a prominent highway. Likewise in Chennai. Then it dawned on me that in India feudalism is still alive unlike the US where state officials, except perhaps the Governor, and township officials and elected representatives live amongst their neighbors.

From the hard rock temple of Thanjavur to the soft rock temples of Belur the architecture varies reflecting the era and the material. The Belur temple has intricate architecture made possible by that soft rock. The temples were spell binding if one paused and wondered how such vast acreage was planned out and built. At Belur the sculptures that line up the gopurams are often repeated with little or no variation. If one saw Belur one can skip Halebid or vice-versa. Sure, it's easy to visit both but there's quite some overlap in the architecture.

Vishnu as Half-Lion Half-Man tearing into the bowels. A sculpture at Belur.

Taj and Fatehpur Sikri

The grandiosity of Taj needs no commentary. My guide, completely ignorant of the history of painting etc, pointed with wonder how the Koran inscriptions that run along the doorway of towering structure appears to be of same width throughout but are not. He did not know that the Mughals introduced the idea of 'perspective' in drawing to India. Anyone who has seen Michelangelo's David might wonder why his hands are disproportionate. The statute was to have been installed atop a church and Michelangelo, the genius that he was, was compensating for the viewer's 'perspective' from tens of feet away and below the statue but the statue was instead kept at ground level.

The city of Stratford-upon-Avon depends on the busloads of tourists who come to visit Shakespeare's home and it is a picture perfect town to visit and relax. On the contrary visiting the Taj has to be done business like. The approach and vicinity are an insult to the monument. No wonder Naipaul thought that the Taj is a misfit in India and it appears as only a monument to a wife who bore 14 children. He felt that transported slab by slab to a US state it might have better meaning. I completely forgot having read that passage and honest to god those are my exact sentiments and I was stunned to read that passage tonight.

Akbar's city, Fatehpur Sikri, reflected his catholicism in the building where he held audience. A central pillar fuses Hindu, Christian and Buddhist styles in that hall. Akbar's Hindu wife had her own lavish palace complete with place for worship and even separate kitchen. The man was a complete gentleman. I did wonder, seeing that pillar, if Hindu kings have accommodated other faiths in their palaces? I don't know.

Ziegenbalg, Evangelism and Keezhavenmani

Tamil Nadu was a major port of entry for Christian evangelism in India. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, a German missionary, landed in Tranquebar (known in Tamil as 'Tharangambadi') as part of a Danish mission on 9th July 1706. Tranquebar was given as a territory to Danes vide a treaty between Tanjore Nayak prince and the Danish delegation on 19th November 1620. The treaty stipulated, amongst other things, that the Danes are free to practice their religion and they'd not be discriminated. It is here that protestant evangelism began in India. An interesting episode, per an exhibit at the Danish fort, was the massacre of Danes by an army sent by the 'Nabob of Tanjore' in June 1756 due to what appeared to be a misunderstanding that the Danes had broken the treaty. Another exhibit spoke of how the right-hand caste people objected to left-hand caste people using a palanquin. Also Brahmins organized a strike and then a revolt when an oil presser of lower caste used a parasol and wore slippers. The first converts were 5 natives in 1707.

A key contribution of Ziegenbalg was the importation of printing press and translating to Tamil the Bible. The Ziegenbalg museum honestly stated that the aim was religious conversion for the printing press and translation. However they incorrectly claim that this was the first printing press in India. Note, even today most Hindu scriptures are only in Sanskrit and if at all translated it is in English by a Westerner. Despite nearly 300 years of active evangelism and proselytization the state of Tamil Nadu and the surrounding areas remain Hindu majority and the town is ringed by venerable temples. That tells us something about the paranoia concerning religious conversions is just that, paranoia.

Bible Translated and Printed in 1713.
I also visited Keezhavenmani, a sleepy village near Thanjavur. It was the site of a horrific massacre of 44 Dalits on December 25th 1968 when women and children taking refuge at a hut were burned alive. A dilapidated memorial stands there. A man claiming to be the younger brother of the owner of that hut, called 'Ramiah's hut', showed me around and shared a few words. I'll return to this topic in the last part of my series on the travel when I discuss caste and religion.

Artless Cities and Intellectual Vacuity

Whether it is Sheesh Mahal in Amer fort or Fatehpur Sikri's palaces or the temples the artistic heritage is breathtaking and a depressing reminder of the current artlessness of the cities. One has to wonder how did such a civilization decay and become so artless? The cities are completely bereft of aesthetics. Whether one travels in the countryside of England, even a not so affluent quarter, or the many quaint downtowns of US or the many cities of Europe there's a sense of beauty and aesthetics whereas Jaipur, Chennai and Bengaluru are an assault on the senses with not just the ubiquitous squalor but how neighborhoods lack any character. There's no sense of a neighborhood. You've money you build to suit your whims. The colors are jarring. Chennai roads are literally overrun with chrome plated railings and road signs. It's an eyesore. Metal just criss-crosses the city like gashes on a body.

V.S. Naipaul had similarly wondered why a civilization with a tradition of art in contemporary times created buildings and monuments that were artless. He reasoned, "The British pillaged the country thoroughly; during their rule manufactures and crafts declined", "a biscuit factory is a poor exchange for gold embroidery. The country has been pillaged before. But the continuity had been maintained. With the British, continuity was broken. And perhaps the British are responsible for this Indian artistic failure". We should remember that Naipaul was a doubly the subject of a British colony, India and Trinidad. He further added, "It was a clash between positive principle and a negative; and nothing more negative can be imagined that the conjunction in 18th century of static Islam and a decadent Hinduism. In any clash between post-Renaissance Europe and India, India was bound to lose" ('An Area of Darkness' by Naipaul)

Sheesh Mahal - Amer Fort
In 2010 traveling on Trichy-Madurai highway I was appalled by how many vehicles travel on the wrong side with impunity and how blessed we were not to have been in a fatal accident. In 2019 even small towns in Tamil Nadu, like Thanjavur, and cities like Bengaluru and Chennai literally had walls as median dividers, in let alone highways, in local roads too. It was such a revolting sight to see brick walls erected as dividers. When the dividers were small enough to prevent vehicles cattle and people behaving like cattle would happily cross over and these higher walls became necessary to avoid that.

A decade who while visiting Madurai Meenakshi temple and Nayakkar Mahal I felt that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments organization (HR &CE) and the Archeology Survey of India that maintain those respective places insult and deface history. I felt the same at Parthasarathy temple at Triplicane in Chennai this time. Indians often lament about treasures of India being smuggled to Western countries but I wonder if, the illegality notwithstanding, it is better than letting the treasures rot in India. Western museums showcase Indian art with respect and regard that Indians have never showed to their own treasures. Note, this is not to argue in support of nefarious illegal acts but to drive home a point.

The HR&CE department has practically created an office inside a smaller temple in the Big Temple premises and walled off a section with the divider rudely cutting into a pillar adorned with a sculpture. It's almost as if it is the mistake that the temple, built a 100 years ago (this part was recent addition) did not anticipate this need. See picture below.

Here's what I wrote, ten years ago:
I think back with lots of pain about the immense pleasure I got out of visiting historical landmarks in the west. When Indians react with smugness looking at 'stolen' treasures in British museums I say "at least the treasures are where they are respected".
My sentiments remain the same a decade later.

Two years ago I visited Italy and the many beautiful cathedrals of Christendom. In almost every church we could get finely produced brochures, for a price, that detail the history of the church and the biblical myths associated with a place. Whether it is Amer Fort in Jaipur or Taj Mahal or Fatehpur Sikri or Parthasarathy temple such brochures were completely absent. At Jantar-Mantar, an 18th century observatory, there's literally a crying need for better information about the instruments. At Taj Mahal the ASI had a depot that was dilapidated, dusty and a sleeping attendant with shoddily produced brochures of, not Taj, but Fatehpur Sikri.

The guides were mostly just hawkers who know where to get your tickets, the way inside and out. Beyond that they should be awarded a legal punishment for the butchering of history. At Amer fort the guide pointed to the toilets, with drainage system, and beamed that no one else in the world had something akin to it. I did not have the heart to tell him that probably the Roman baths that predated Amer fort had something similar. I've been to Bath, England too. At Halebid, Karnataka the guide bragged, pointing to a sculpture, that it was a binocular and it shows we invented binoculars before Galileo. Pointing to a sculpture of a warrior raining arrows he helpfully explained that it was the precursor of scud missiles. And when my lady friend stepped away he pointed to an erotic sculpture and whispered, conspiratorially in my ears, "you can take photographs". I did not.

"Together with the triviality of Indian thought on most subjects", wrote Naipaul in 'India: A Wounded Civilization", "the intellectual deficiencies of the archaic civilization finally revealed during this Emergency". Nowhere is this evident even today than in the book stores of a city like Bengaluru. Chennai is even worse when it comes to book stores.

Aside from visiting Belur-Halebid in Karnataka I spent a morning at one of the well known bookstores of Bengaluru, Gangaram Book Store and few others in Church Street. An elderly store assistant was thrilled to help me. He literally embarrassed me by running around and hauling books for me based on my preferences. I told him to stop but he persisted saying, "it's rare to see anyone ask for the books you did". As a fellow bibliophile he was just plainly excited. I had decided not to buy books that I'd get in US or through Amazon in general. I wanted local publications on local topics.

While I came across some gems like M.C. Chagla's autobiography, a book on India's churches etc the majority of the books were by hobbyists and not by academicians. Rajmohan Gandhi is now considered a historian and that's the high bar the rest are really scary. A starry eyed biographer of Sardar Patel had a chapter titled, "Lenin and Bardoli". I duly kept the book back in the shelf. Religion sells, by the bushels. Savarkar has become the subject of two recent biography. I bought one by Vikram Sampath and in 20 pages he has managed to make me puke with thinly veiled caste pride and hollow high praises. And that's a Penguin publication. Sigh. Sardar Patel clearly has become a good selling subject. India's academicians rarely publish for the common reader and maybe, given their quality, it is a blessing. The number of books on international topics are slim picking and its a usual reflection of the insular intellectual taste of Indians.

A visit to a book fair in Thanjavur was a windfall for me for all the books I bought from Kalachuvadu (Footprint) and few other publishers. However I am sure the publishers themselves had no windfall as most stalls were visited by window shoppers. High School children from pricey private schools came by the bus loads and most shopped for coloring text books or books less than Rs 15-20. Of course, no book was available at that price. Cinema tickets don't sell at that price level. Being a publisher in India is a Karmic punishment perhaps.

Whether it was at Bharati's memorials at Triplicane and Pondicherry or at Kalakshetra one is pained that Bharathi and Rukmini Devi Arundale still lack good definitive and academic biographies. Bharathi signified the birth of modern Tamil verse and prose and Rukmini Devi midwifed a classical art. Yet, we only know stories about both of them.

While India proved Naipaul wrong on the lack of ambition it, sadly, continues to vindicate his chiding of the intellectual backwardness of the country in 1976. "India's intellectual second-rateness, which is generally taken for granted but maybe the most startling and depressing fact about the world's second most populous country".

That intellectual second-rateness and the current political state of India are intricately braided with great consequence for the world at large and for India. That takes me to the question of how did Narendra Modi win such a thumping victory? As is my habit I indulged a bit in local news magazines and newspapers. Just one issue of India-Today, a news magazine published since the 1970s, with a cover story on the fiscal woes of the automobile sector provided enough material on the state of India today. About that, in the next blog.