All posts by shekhar

American Grand Strategy

This was an extended two-part series on the relationship of India and the United States, on the eve of the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in mid-March 2000, published in the erstwhile Satyam Online news service.

The rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the central geopolitical anatagonism of the half-century that followed the conclusion of World War II, fifty years which also parallel the experience of India’s Independence. And with the collapse of the Soviet and state socialist regimes in the early nineties, India and the world have entered a new geopolitical era, an age whose contours are only becoming clear now.

The Policy of Containment

The guiding strategy of American foreign policy-makers and defence experts throughout the Cold War had been the policy of “containment”, premised on a turn-of-the-century geopolitical theory which had in fact been essayed not in America, but in England, by the strategist Halford Mackinder. Adapted to the Cold War, Mackinder’s famous theory of heartland and rimland states was the essential ingredient in American geopolitical thinking.

Continue reading American Grand Strategy

The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD). Continue reading The Historical Past and Political Present

To Privatise or Saffronise?

Originally published in Satyam Online, 12 February 2000.

 

In the past several months since the NDA coalition has eased itself into the saddle of governance, our media has waxed eloquent about a newfound stability of the ruling alliance. The easy passage of the bundle of reform bills in the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha was advertised to the public and to the world as a prelude to a new round of liberalisation.

The showcase of the much-awaited “second generation” of economic reforms will be the upcoming Budget Session, to open at the end of February. Compared to the messy coalitions of years past, it seems now that the BJP confidently straddles the centre of the Indian political fulcrum. However, amidst the booming bourses and the hype around the visit of US President Bill Clinton, we should not be misled. The events of the past several weeks, notably the protests over Deepa Mehta’s film Water, and the announcement of the privatisation of Modern Foods and Indian Airlines, all give clues to the real fragility within the ruling party. The connection between these two events is not just incidental — Arun Jaitley holds both the Information & Broadcasting portfolio as well as that of Disinvestment.

Sanskriti or Swadeshi?

Last week, on the banks of the Ganga, one never heard a whisper of that other inflammatory slogan of the Sangh, opposing foreign economic domination and calling for swadeshi. This would have been truly radical, and dangerous for the new regime. We can rest assured, through Vajpayee’s “liberal” stewardship, that the strident slogans of culture and Hinduism will increase, and the politics of class will be silenced as the next wave of reforms approaches.

Earlier this month, political pundits were surprised to see the Prime Minister hitting out at Pakistan on several counts — for trying to disrupt the economy by flooding the country with counterfeit currency, by claiming that India was ready to match any nuclear threat in kind, and demanding the return of Occupied Kashmir. To this was added Vajpayee’s blessing of the RSS as a cultural and not a political organisation, to which the Governments of HP, UP and Gujarat responded by lifting the ban of their employees participating in the RSS.

Vajpayee’s tilt to the Right had less to do with these issues, than with an internal tussle in the BJP ranks, between the hardline saffron faction controlled by L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the so-called moderates, represented by Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and others. Central to the Prime Minister’s calculations now is keeping this unwieldy ship together, to navigate it through the unrest that will be generated by the next wave of reforms.

Sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and the free hand given to the extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar as seen last week in Banaras, has placated the hardline saffron faction. And most importantly, it has wedded them to the agenda of privatisation favoured by the so-called BJP liberals.

Privatisation and Saffronisation

The showpiece of the new economic policies will be the privatisation of the public sector, foreshadowed by the two test cases floated earlier this month by Jaitley, and the further retreat of the state from its basic responsibilities towards the poor — subsidies to basic commodities which are now being cancelled; the WTO-dictated removal of import duties on basic food products which will have disastrous consequences for farmers throughout the country; and the withdrawal of responsibility for primary services like health and education, which the BJP Vice President J. Krishnamurthy has claimed the state has no business in providing.

If, according to Arun Jaitley, the state has no business providing bread for the people, and Krishnamurthy claims that the state should free itself from ensuring their literacy and health, one might ask whose Government is this then?

On the eve of the new Budget, the RSS and VHP could have mobilised its ranks on these issues, which redound most centrally on the livelihood of the masses. Instead they chose a soft target like Deepa Mehta.

This has saved the BJP from a major schism on the eve of one of the most important Budgets to be tabled in several years, one that will crucially determine India’s terms of engagement with the global economy. But one wonders what makes a bigger difference to the beleagured people of Banaras. Is it the rise in the prices of basic commodities, the further erosion of social services, the attack on organised labour — all of which will be floated in the new Budget — or the cultural sensitivity of an English film that will probably never be screened outside of some major Western and Indian cities?

Watering Down Water

Originally published on Satyam Online, 8 February 2000.

Even those of us of liberal political convictions must sometimes admit it. Something quite interesting happened in that majestic city by the Ganga this week. In times when it seems that politics is less about principles and ideas than about populism and pay-offs, when someone, anyone, takes a principled stand, it is touching.

Thus when the Sangh Parivar decides to blow up a few bombs to cock a snook at the nuclear monopoly of the great powers, it warms what is left of our nationalist heart. When they take out their ire against the arrogant moral universalism of Christianity by smashing a few churchs and torching a few missionaries, there is some pride in that defiance. Of course, such cynical vandalism is not about defending national sovereignty or our cultural integrity, as we all know. It is more about upper-caste vote banks and simple hatemongering. But we should be  equally aware that neither the nuclear powers, nor the Christian missionaries, nor Deepa Mehta and her snobby liberalism are blameless. Continue reading Watering Down Water

The Arrest of Dara Singh

Originally published in Satyam Online, 4 February 2000.

 

This week has been an eventful one politically. The arrest of Dara Singh, implicated in the murder of the missionary Graham Staines and his two children, a Christian clergyman and a Muslim trader named Rehman, is of course a welcome, if somewhat belated development, since the attacks on Christians began to intensify more than a year ago.

What is curious is not just how long it took to arrest Dara Singh — who, despite being available for newspaper interviews, was able to evade the authorities for a full year — but the timing of the arrest. Some cynics point to the upcoming Orissa assembly elections and the Congress’ impending doom in the state, in the wake of the super-cyclone. To the cynic, this is a perfectly acceptable reason for the speedy arrest of Singh after administrative inaction for more than a year. While this won’t go very far in convincing Orissa’s shattered voters of the promises of “good governance” equally important was another event announced late this week.

The Timing of the Arrest

The dates for the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in mid-March were finalised only two days after the arrest. This was also coincident with Gladys Staines, the murdered missionary’s widow, emerging into the public eye to release a book in Bombay and speak to the press about her husband and sons’ murder by a functionary of the Sangh Parivar. In the politics of U.S. Presidential visits to foreign, especially Asian countries, this assumes significance.

In 1998, Clinton was beleagured by pressure groups, many associated with the Christian Right in the U.S., to halt his diplomatic overtures towards China, whose Government takes an exceptionally strong line on the “anti-national” and subversive activities of missionaries and Christians. Short of cancelling his visit, many groups and Congressmen wanted him to meet with Christian dissidents in China.

With Clinton’s visit to India imminent, the White House perhaps wants to avoid the similar embarrasment in India, and the BJP-led Government has obliged its new strategic partner, eager to do business with the U.S., without the meddling of lobbies which continue to hound China’s patrons abroad. If Gladys Staines were ever to meet Clinton, it would tarnish the much-touted cliche of India;s tolerant and secular culture.

Proving the Secular Credentials of the Government

The arrest of Dara Singh, then, is no demonstration of the secular resolve of the Central Government. Other recent developments bear out this conclusion. In U.P., the recent statements of Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta approving the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and the recent passage by the UP Assembly of the Regulation of Public Religious Buildings and Places Bill, which prohibits the building of any temple, mosque, church, or gurudwara, without the permission of the Government. Additionally, this legislation sanctions the demolition of these structures if they are built without first seeking the state’s permission. Passed in the wake of the IC814 hijacking and amidst the media-generated hysterics about ISI infiltration of the country, it will further enable the harrassment of minorities.

In Gujarat, similar trends are evident in the decision of the State Government to allow its employees to openly claim their affiliation to the RSS, and the equally shocking display of the Gujarat Chief Minister in khaki shorts, accompanied by Union Home Minister L K Advani, swearing allegiance to the Hindutva storm-troopers. We can thus safely assume that next Christmas, when Hindu extremist groups want to terrorise tribal Christians in the Dangs, they police need not even keep up the pretence of protecting all citizens regardless of their religion.

The writings of one of the Sangh Parivar’s senior ideologues should make the core of the Government’s beliefs clear. In his latest book, Harvesting Our Souls, Arun Shourie, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP and Minister at the Centre, comments approvingly on the policies of the Chinese Government towards its minority Christian community. These policies include a ban on all foreign missionaries, the requirement of registering with a State-run Church affiliated to the Communist Party, and the haunting of minority groups as presumably anti-national.

Recently in Orissa, according to reports by John Dayal, convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, the Centre has been continuously warning Christian organisations and groups in the tribal belts of Orissa to obey the Anti-Conversion Act, a legislation which violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion in article 25 of the Constitution. But considering that this week’s other story, in which the Government showed quiet contempt for the President’s warnings against tinkering with the founding document of our Republic, these new developments seem consistent with the real character of the BJP-led Government.

Making Democracy Meaningless

Originally published on Satyam Online, 27 January 2000.

 

If one thinks back about the hype manufactured around the golden jubilee of Independence in 1997 — hype which nonetheless failed to create more than a flutter and a grumble in the public heart — it is surprising that Republic Day this year passed with little more than the standard commemoration.

In the history of modern constitutional democracies, the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Republic is an occasion equal to, if not more important than, the attainment of Independence from British rule. But every year, we are treated to the pompous display of newer and more sophisticated weaponry, the silly self-congratulation, decorating of heroes in an ongoing war against our largest neighbour and against sizeable portions of our own population in the name of “national security”. All of these questionable and disgusting rituals have little to do with the actual meaning of the Republic. Continue reading Making Democracy Meaningless

Identifying the Terrorists

Originally published in Satyam Online, 9 January 2000.

 

Several days ago, the headlines of our major national papers showed Home Minister L K Advani announcing to the world “damning evidence” to prove the Pakistan Government’s direct role in the recent hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar. The purpose of this press conference, it appeared, was to beseech the so-called “international community” — a convenient nickname for the U.S. Government — to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The Government claimed a victory in the “war against terrorism” when, in a passing remark to a reporter at the White House, Bill Clinton’s spokesman agreed that the hijackers should be brought to book for their actions.

Dismantling India’s Independent Foreign Policy

This is but the latest instance in a recent trend, initiated under the previous BJP Government, which sees India’s diplomatic and military victories scored not by the strength of decisions taken in South Block, or by its armed forces on the battlefield, but through the intervention of the U.S. The much-trumpeted victory in Kargil earlier this year, on which the BJP-led coalition rode to power in the latest election, would have been less certain, more prolonged and bloody, had Bill Clinton not instructed Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces or face cancellation of international loans and other punishments by the world’s last superpower. Continue reading Identifying the Terrorists

Workers’ Rights and Labour Law

Click here to download PDF of Workers Rights and Labour Law (India Centre for Human Rights & Law, 1999).

Workers Rights and Labour Law: A Backgrounder for the Workshop on Labour was compiled and edited with the help of Jairus Banaji and the Trade Union Solidarity Committee (TUSC) in Mumbai in 1999. It was published for the National Conference on Human Rights, Social Movements, Globalisation and the Law held at Panchagani, Maharashtra in December 1999 by the India Centre for Human Rights and Law, Mumbai.

Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Partha Chatterjee, ed., Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1998.

Recent years have seen a significant enrichment of the theoretical depth of Indian political and social analysis, inspired both by revised disciplinary perspectives — most notably, the work of the Subaltern Studies collective — and by contemporary political changes. This volume, edited by one of the most outstanding of such recent theorists, brings together both seasoned analysts and new contributors from the fields of social, cultural and political analysis in a solid collection of essays that examine the experience of postcolonial democracy and nationalist modernity. Continue reading Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Untouchable Pasts

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Saurabh Dube, Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 1780-1950. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

The prevailing narrowness of disciplinary boundaries in history and anthropology have prompted a now well-developed critique of the isolation of the archive and the field, respectively — the privileging of elite archival sources, textual authority, and their master narratives on the one hand, and the ahistorical essentialism, questionable epistemic and cultural perspectives of fieldwork on the other. The effort undertaken by the Subaltern Studies collective to use the anthropologist’s tools in the writing of history has, in the study of Indian society, introduced questions of culture and power, identity formation and representation, and everyday cultural and social practices into the historiography of modern India. This recent book deepens this project of ethnographic history through a study of the Satnami community of Chhatisgarh in contemporary Madhya Pradesh. Continue reading Untouchable Pasts