Category Archives: opinion

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

Golden Jubilee, 1997

To once ride the Bombay suburban railway network is enough to learn what urban atomisation really means — crowds literally packed tighter than sardines in a can, pickled in their own perspiration, trains clanging to each of their stops from the southern tip of the island of Bombay to its ever-expanding northern suburbs, exploding passengers onto concrete platforms. As dusk descended over the megapolis on the evening of the fourteenth of August 1997, the commuters at Churchgate Station were, though harried by the heat and a hard day at the office, looking forward to a holiday. And unlike Independence Days of the past decades, this one had especial significance. A week before, the Western Railway authorities had cleaned up the halls of the station and plastered posters advertising the fiftieth anniversary of Independence — as well as a rededicated commitment to the happiness and safety of the commuter.

I had been in Bombay for almost three months, working as a reporter and features writer for the newspaper The Indian Express, and was placed in-charge of features coverage for the Mumbai special edition on Independence. After finishing my layouts of the page — in which I had interviewed and transcribed the comments of old freedom fighters, intellectuals, politicians and city notables reminiscing about the summer of 1947 — I decided to take a bus home instead of engaging the train at rush hour.

I boarded a bus heading for the northern suburbs near the old Secretariat building in south Bombay, where the tricolour of independent India had been unfurled at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947. Lights festooned the crumbling Victorian Gothic façade of the building, which now housed administrative offices of the Government of Maharasthra. Other than these few lights and the posters at the railway stations, Bombay had hardly interrupted its workaday hurriedness to ponder on fifty years of freedom. Among middle-class people, talk of fifty years was only met with brief introspection, perhaps some grumblings about corruption and underdevelopment. My uncle, to whose home I was now going for supper, surprised me with his more-than-usual acidity: had the British stayed, at least we would have been a developed country, even if still in chains. I could respond only with silence to this one.

But if such comments pierced my heart and emptied me of response, at other times interviewing for the features page I had become variously enraged and joyful. For residents of metropolitan India and Bombay especially, the forties and fifties were a long-vanished halcyon age of political activism and youthful passion: when the nation strove towards modernity and greatness under the political stewardship of the ranks of freedom fighters with the masses obediently assembled under their direction; when the avante-garde blossomed and politics opened new avenues; and when industrial houses and factories became our first temples, the work of nation-building our favourite puja. “You do not know what heaven it was to be young then” said M.V. Kamat, veteran journalist who covered the freedom struggle for the nationalist lodestar Free Press Journal. “We would all gather in the editorial offices simply to discuss politics and the future of our nation, we were so idealistic. We thought we could change the world by just writing an editorial. In fact we changed nothing!” he laughed while speaking to me, a grizzled old soldier of Bombay’s postcolonial civil society. In those days he wore khadi to the office, because all the reporters at the British-owned Times of India were required to wear coat and tie; now he only wore khadi at home. I myself never wore anything other than jeans and tee-shirts when going to my editorial offices everyday.

The bus trundled its way out of south Bombay, past the crumbling Victorian Gothic halls and mansions of the old colonial town and pressed onwards into the central working-class neighbourhoods — where the cotton mills and labourers’ chawls were located for more than fifty years. As the conductor rapped the side of seats with his ticket-puncher and pulled the bell signalling stops, passengers scampered onto what seats were left as the bus hardly stopped for them. I shifted uncomfortably in the seats which were always too narrow to accomodate my legs and rested my chin on the bars on the window — a light drizzle was sprinkling the bazaars, in full glow from the evening’s business, well-lit oases in a sea of crowds returning from offices, factories and the day’s labour.

As motorbikes, scooters, utility vans and automobiles honked and dodged their way through the traffic, young street children approached windows peddling small paper tricolours — five rupees for a big one, two rupees for a small one. I had seen these children — normally scraping their soft and greasy hands against windscreens for small donations speaking of God’s grace and the charity of richer folk — for the past several days, and had bought flags to bring home to my family. They were the unfortunate castaways of the urban hell that was Bombay, who for a few weeks every year turned into the emissaries of a moribund nationalism, selling flags rather than pleading their poverty.

The bus was taking much longer than the train would ever have — though I had the luxury of my window seat and the warm sprinkle on my face. I rang home on my mobile phone to inform of my tardiness, and was greeted by my cynical uncle, who warned me of the obvious traffic. The bus navigated the central industrial suburbs and finally ascended a fly-over highway into the residential districts of old Bombay, which fifty years ago were the city limits, bordered on the north by palm trees and sandy beaches. This was where my grandfather, an itinerant labourer who became a clerk in a British firm, had bought a house in the thirties when property was cheap. The area of Matunga, the South Indian neighbourhood where my father’s family was settled, and Dadar, the gentrified district of middle-class Maharashtrians, South Indians and Parsis, was the last taste of that fading colonial charm for which Bombay was known throughout the world.

It had in the past several decades been transformed, the mild prosperity and leisure of its residents turned into political power for the numerically predominant Maharashtrian community. It was now the power centre for the ruling Shiv Sena, a nativist party whose leader, Balasaheb Thackeray, wielded absolute power and commanded an allegiance from his lumpen cadres (the majority of whom were the labourers and proletariat of Bombay’s decaying industrial areas) in a manner he liked to compare to Adolf Hitler’s.

And for whatever lack of festivity displayed in the environs of officialdom and the jaded chattering classes in south Bombay, Dadar — the home of the “remote control”, a title assumed by Thackeray to denote his unofficial, but complete authority, in affairs of state — presented a contradictory image. Officially shunned by the Central Government, who would celebrate Independence as per their instructions from Delhi — which meant half-heartedly, with bureaucratic stiffness — the Shiv Sena and Balasaheb decided that day to make a show of their power and influence. Dadar had the look of a festival day, with lights of white, saffron and green lining shop fronts and the tops of buildings, saffron banners with nationalist and nativist slogans spun around street lamps and fences. The main traffic circle was decorated in the regalia of a state ceremony, with a dais erected for a flag hoisting at the Sena’s party headquaters at midnight that night. Floodlights shone on the whitewashed fronts of the Sena’s offices and the surrounding offices and schools. Party workers milled about greeting families on an evening stroll. Children danced about the streets with flags in their hands and their parents shopped for sweets to ceremoniously give to friends and relatives in celebration of fifty years of freedom.

Balasaheb was known for his provocative statements, his Hindu and Maharashtrian bigotry, his blatant defiance of the Centre on many occassions. Lately, with his Government encountering criticism for law-and-order failures and police abuses — the killing of twelve lower-caste slum swellers in police firing in the northern suburbs, and a subsequent attack by Shiv Sena functionaries on the leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly one month earlier had caused rioting in Bombay for two days, during which he had to go on bended knee to the Home Minister and the Governor to prevent the state government’s dismissal — Balasaheb had quieted his rhetoric. Independence was the perfect occassion for him to reap symbolic authority from an anniversary that would only come twice in a century, to identify himself with a movement whose legacy was being fiercely contested and questioned on all sides of the political spectrum and within India’s civil society for many years.

The rise of challenges to the one-party hegemony of the nationalist Indian National Congress had in the years since Independence shattered the latter party as a significant force in Indian politics. As lower-caste and popular empowerment progressed, Dalit groups had become politically conscious though were as yet politically in disarray in western India — the inadequate and fumbling response of the Dalit parties to the riots in July only sharpened their cleavages, however much the riots revealed their potential power. Meanwhile, over the course of thirty years, reactionary and neo-nationalist cadres of Hindu extremism had successfully channeled popular discontent and communal animosity into political power in Bal Thackeray’s Mumbai, and in late 1994 toppled the ruling Congress Party and made a new state Government.

Now Balasaheb was to bestow a mantle of respectability on his movement of cultural and political populism — a movement which united middle-class gentry and industrial barons with gangsters, thugs and the urben proletariat — by personally unfurling the standard of free India over his party headquarters on the stroke of midnight, in the manner of Jawaharlal Nehru. As the middle-class sourly commented on the decline of the nation and the rot of civility in post-Independence Mumbai, and as lower-caste elements vociferously challenged the right of an upper-caste Hindu bigot who during the freedom struggle eschewed political activity and served as a bulwark for reactionaries, party workers and their supporters raised their flag over central Bombay, and alongside the tricolour was raised a flag of one colour — only saffron, emblazoned with the ancient Hindu symbol (Om), the flag of the Shiv Sena.

And though that same night India’s gerontocracy and their sycophants and attendants assembled in the Central Hall of Parliament in Delhi to commemorate the nation’s fifty-year old “tryst with destiny”, and at the old Secretariat a small official party raised the same flag over the Victorian spires and domes of old Bombay, the morning newspapers were covered with photos of Dadar aflame with lights, singing and saffron. The revolt in the name of freedom, and the power it commanded, had shifted.