Saturday, May 31, 2008


“A process has begun where caste might be losing its salience in Indian politics.” This was the core argument that Professor Suhas Palshikar made to a small group of research scholars and professors on South Asia at the University of Chicago.

He was invited to speak on the complex subject of ‘Making sense of caste-politics interaction in contemporary India’ and he did it crisply; gently hand-holding his audience for an hour through the different elements he wove into his talk. It was a well-distilled laying out, of all the things we actually don’t know about the great churning going on in Indian politics of 2008.

Professor Palshikar is also the co-director of Lokniti – a comparative democracy programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. The programme’s greatest contribution to political science has been their study of Indian elections since 1995-96. Believe it or not, between 1971 and 1996 there is hardly any data available to thrown light on social changes.

That’s perhaps why he says that the wrong questions are being asked by Indian political scientists. For instance, he says, “There are changes taking place in the experiential nature of caste due to urbanization.” He also draws attention to the changing Dalit image of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). He points out, “The BSP these days talks about being a ‘sarvojan samaj’ party, which means a party for the whole society. They are no longer a party just for Dalits.” Professor Palshikar presented these ideas to underscore the as yet unexplored question, “Is caste influencing politics today in the traditional manner that it did in the 1960s and 70s?”

A rattling door that refused to shut tight didn’t seem to distract his audience. He held their interest throughout; making a point-by-point progression with pre-emptive clarifications to questions that might’ve popped up in the listener’s mind. Explaining why caste alone can’t be the framework within which Indian politics can be examined, he cites a small study conducted in his home base of Pune. He says, “Out study found that barring Dalits, in no other caste group are more than 40% practicing the same occupation as their father or grandfather.” He cites that as an extremely important statistic because it indicates that “the internal material interests of caste groups may be disintegrating” since the majority have experienced some form of upward mobility. The caveat he adds quickly is that this is true of Pune and could be different elsewhere which in turn shows how valuable a worms-eye view can be. “There has been an over-emphasis on creating macro-level data when what we might really need is constituency level information which we don’t have at the moment.”

In his analysis, political parties with national aspirations have had to evolve from appealing only to caste-identities because the politics of reservations and social justice eventually reach a dead-end. He says, “Now we are witnessing that caste-appeal becomes inadequate,” an assertion that is of a piece with BSP leader and Prime Ministerial aspirant Mayawati’s new inclusive “sarvojan samaj” message. He substantiates his claim by saying, “That’s why Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party who appealed strongly to the Yadav community in Uttar Pradesh could not make much headway in Maharashtra because there are no Yadavs there. That’s why it is complicated for the two national parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, to come up with any uniform caste-based strategy.”

But even as the national stage requires the de-emphasis of caste, Professor Palshikar points to a curious trend of the caste identity becoming more accentuated in cultural life with the formation of caste-based associations. He says, “Apart from acting as pressure groups demanding seats and reservations for their communities, they also act as gate-keepers, ensuring that young people marry within the community. Furthermore, they are demanding greater cultural space for their caste by demanding statues and renaming of libraries etc. after their caste heroes.” And interestingly enough they also perform some economic functions like a caste-based barbers association which fixes the amount that they will charge customers!

Overlaying the occupational and social changes taking place within Indian society and inside caste groups with the evolution of political parties themselves Professor Palshikar left his audience with a set of questions to frame their enquiry on Indian politics. “To what extent will caste be an effective unit of mobilization? And to what extent does caste constitute a unit that actually defines the interests of various groups in society?”

He says, “Region, religion, caste, material interests inter-weave in such a complex manner and at such different levels that we need to find out then where the contemporary moment in Indian politics lies?”

Rochana Majumdar, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and a historian says, “Palshikar offered new materials on the everyday operation of caste in contemporary India which opened up a whole new set of questions for researchers of Indian history, politics and anthropology.”

Unfortunately, scientific polling data on elections started only as late as 1996 leaving a bit of a gaping hole for researchers. What is clear though is that the notion that Indian politics begins and ends with caste needs to be discarded immediately.
Published in India Abroad in the May 30th, 2008 issue as well as on

Monday, May 26, 2008


India is so excited by the idea of becoming a major power that our new found confidence is changing into arrogance long before it happens. If it does…

‘If you’ve done it, it ain’t braggin,’ is an old Texan saying.

But if you attend a business conference abroad on India, like I did recently, you’d think it’s an old one out of New Delhi.

For almost 6 hours, it was a non-stop gush of staggering numbers and the possibilities for profit in India – a view we’re hearing a lot of nowadays in the media, at seminars and from the government of course. And thanks to an expanding economy Indians are fast shedding their diffidence about themselves and their country. My fear though is that confidence is changing too quickly into arrogance in some quarters - arrogance, that neither has any basis in reality nor advances the interests of ‘Brand India’ in any way. Our image of ourselves is somewhat distorted by this chorus of hallelujahs for India, producing a brash, new nationalism that comes from growing wealth. Fareed Zakaria writes in his new book, ‘The Post-American World’ about this phenomenon in India and China and says that it can morph into something uglier.

It’s already happening in two ways – an intolerance towards anyone who strikes a more skeptical note about rising India and a propaganda-style message about India that is disconnected from reality. Both need to change because we are creating a brand that is bigger than the product.

For instance, if you challenge the idea of a rising India with the dogged optimists by pointing out the Gujarat genocide, you are immediately reminded that Gujarat is also one of the most industrially advanced and administratively efficient states in India. If you point to the fact that most of our engineering graduates are not employable you are immediately reminded that India still produces the highest number of engineering graduates in the world. If you suggest that Indian democracy is so criminalized that it has killed good governance you are told that no other country sends a billion people to the ballot box. This is the new half-full approach to life but it tends to gloss over anything that points in the other direction and brands anyone who says so as a skeptic and a kill-joy. We are in love with the idea of rising India so much that we can immediately marshal the relevant facts to prove it. Remember the ‘India Shining’ campaign? No one knew it would be the lead zeppelin of 2004.

So, just as facts and numbers on India can be spun in a positive way, they can also break down just as easily. For example, India’s growing importance in the world is measured by the fact that we have nuclear weapons, a 9.4% GDP growth rate, the second largest army in the world, a massive geographical territory, a billion people, a politically stable climate and the current flavour of the season internationally, a democratic form of government. This is what the world sees and acknowledges as powerful and this is what fuels India’s aspirations. But a great power is fundamentally supposed to be able to positively influence events, something we can’t do even in our own backyard at the moment. Afghanistan is a mess, Pakistan is losing control over itself, Bangladesh can’t decide when to have elections, Nepal is in transition and Sri Lanka in civil war. India has little or no control over events in its own neighbourhood, let alone projecting its power around the world. Besides even when the chance arose India could not take a bold stand. It refused to condemn China on its actions in Tibet and it did business with the Burmese junta at the height of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

On the economy, I can’t interpret the numbers because I am not an economist. But I do know this. A vast majority, 700 million Indians are still on two dollars a day or less. Logically that can’t make us a powerful country in the near future even if more and more Indian billionaires are populating lists of the wealthiest people on the planet.

I’m sure I don’t have to expand on the law and order situation. Most of us have had our share of let-downs and shock defeats with the police. And externally, our nukes might deter China and Pakistan but our government can’t guarantee that bombs won’t kill our people in a bazaar.

My point here is not to say that we shouldn’t be optimistic about India or that India isn’t a rising power. Looking at where we came from, of course it is. But we need to see where we have to go before we acquire the bragging rights. Let’s get rid of the arrogance, and listen to the skeptics. The aspirations of a billion people demand it.

This is the first in a series of columns also available on the NDTV website.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Violence begets violence and Afghans know that better than anyone else. One whole generation has seen nothing but guns and war where the sight of a Kalashnikov is as common as that of a kite.

In that generation, just four years before the Soviet invasion in 1979, was born Ahmad Nader Nadery. Despite the lawless, “failed state” that Afghanistan has become through his lifetime, he has soldiered on in his mission to protect human rights. And that’s why he was recognized this year as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum for his role as commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Addressing human rights in a war zone sounds like an overwhelming task. And it is. Where does it begin? And is it a tiny clean drop in a surging dirty ocean of violations? What good has the U.S. invasion done - people are still dying and an insurgency rages in the south? But just as the mind starts to boggle at these questions, Nader presents a simple analysis to the outsider. “The fact that we are even talking about human rights today is a huge step forward,” he says. And as beginnings go, that is a good one.

Nadery’s ambition for a peaceful Afghanistan was sparked off during his days at the Kabul University where he studied law. “Students represent every section of society and Afghans trust them. So I thought that students should take over the role of maintaining security as the different militias and warlords fight.” He and a friend presented this idea to the UN’s special envoy in Pakistan. It didn’t work. The UN didn’t want to sponsor another armed group. Having tried and failed Nadery went back to Afghanistan to finish his law degree. But by then he had made a staunch enemy in the Taliban for being a meddlesome troublemaker who had the audacity to challenge them. He says, “I was jailed, beaten and tortured for three months by the Taliban but my family managed to bail me out. It was 1999 and I couldn’t go back to Kabul. My siblings had all left for Europe so I decided to join my parents in Pakistan.”

But Peshawar, far from feeling safe, only felt lonely and depressing. The future looked bleak and Nadery remembers that time as a metaphor. There was booming construction in Peshawar with the arrival of Afghan refugees. But back home in Kabul, there was only destruction. Peshawar was being built while Kabul was being destroyed. He couldn’t bear to sit there and do nothing. So while many Afghans were resigned to their fate, waiting for money from relatives abroad and waiting for peace, Nadery decided to do something crazy.

He decided to journey through dangerous Taliban controlled Afghanistan to ask people what they wanted and record their problems – a first step in deciding the future course of the country. He and a friend traveled from Nimroz in the south near the Iranian border ending their journey two months later in Jalalabad between Kabul and the Khyber Pass. They met two other friends to discuss what they had seen and heard from ordinary Afghans about the conflicts and their problems. “We discovered that there was a major ‘legitimacy of power’ crisis. People didn’t trust the government at all because there had been no democratic process after 1978 to legitimize power.” The Taliban had successfully turned Afghanistan into a dark, barren, lawless corner of the world where learning and freedom were completely wiped out. Nadery recalls, “You couldn’t tell whether you were looking at an old man or a young one.” The thick beards and the depression made everyone look old and sad. “There was not a single woman on the street. The Taliban were hated by ordinary people not just for their violence and barbaric forms of justice but also because they abused elders – a grave violation of Afghan culture. But even through this there was a narrow window of hope and I started working for the International Human Rights Law Group gathering information on human rights abuses.” Despite these efforts, under the Taliban the total state of suppression continued.

“So when 9/11 happened and the U.S bombing in Afghanistan began a month later ordinary Afghans welcomed foreign troops,” he says. He himself felt a new surge of hope. The Taliban would be gone and the aspirations of 32 million Afghans would finally be realized.

Nadery became a prominent voice when President Hamid Karzai appointed him the Human Rights Commissioner in the AIHRC in 2002. But six years on Nadery’s job is as tough as it was when he began. “Reconstruction efforts didn’t create job opportunities and people were frustrated.” The Taliban tapped into these frustrations and made their comeback. Renewed pledges on security, rule of law and human rights in London in 2006 have also largely remained unfulfilled. “The Afghan national Army has the confidence of the people but the police are a source of fear and insecurity,” says Nadery. Meanwhile the Taliban has evolved. “They use the media in a very sophisticated way and try to dominate public opinion. They’ve learnt a lot from Iraq, especially suicide bombing.”

The biggest violation of rights is evident in civilian casualties something for which the international forces are equally culpable. Nadery says, “More than 8000 civilians have been killed in the last two years during operations, air-strikes and Taliban suicide bombings. The international forces shoot indiscriminately and torture and abuse detainees.”

Today in Afghanistan the metaphor of his Peshawar experience is evident. Where reconstruction has failed the Taliban is strong or as Nadery says, “Where the road ends the Taliban begins.” Ahmad Nader Nadery is a “Young Global Leader” because he is steadfast in his commitment to push them back.
Published in The Hindu BusinessLine on May 23rd 2008.

Monday, May 19, 2008


It was with a degree of consternation that most people watched Raj Thackeray’s young army of party-workers attacking Indian citizens from Bihar and UP inside Maharashtra. Was regionalism surfacing again as a new centrifugal force in India? How much traction would it find amongst Maharashtrians? Why have these tendencies not blunted with time? And, is this the start of more violent identity politics?

I discussed these questions with Professor Suhas Palshikar, a political scientist and professor at the Pune University and an expert on Maharashtrian politics. He says, “This is a very short-term strategy by Raj Thackeray because the Maharashtra elections are around the corner. Three years from now you may not hear him saying these things.” He adds, “This is part of the majoritarian brand of politics that does find traction even amongst moderate people.” Raj Thackeray keeps his message conveniently vague invoking a sense of hurt inflicted upon Maharashtrian culture and sentiments and towards the economic status of Maharashtrians. Professor Palshikar says, “He does not want to tie his hands and so his position is ambiguous. The message seems to be that outsiders will have to remain within bounds.” “Regional majoritarianism has good appeal and it is the easiest policy to adopt while entering politics. He wants to gain ground away from the Shiv Sena and there is a space for this kind of regional, identity politics. His strategy will be to be a spoiler in the coming elections.”

Founded only in 2006, Raj Thackeray’s
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena will contest its first assembly elections next year.
PS: How can a political party have the very militant word ‘Army’ in it? How can Maharashtra Navnirman Sena or Shiv Sena be allowed? (And just incidentally, both uncle and nephew, Raj and Bal Thackeray are admirers of Adolf Hitler.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Every day the numbers rise.

Cyclone Nargis has extracted a deadly price in isolated Burma killing nearly 22,500 people as of May 7th with another 41,000 reported missing. But to the witless military junta this appears inconsequential as they are looking to go ahead with a
referendum on a new constitution likely to cement their rule.

I’m not about to discuss the merits (of which there are few) and demerits of the Burmese rulers. Instead, their response, or lack of it, reminded me of India’s response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.

I was at the Marina Beach in those early hours after the tsunami struck trying to make sense of what was happening because I was covering it for
NDTV. I could only confirm 6 deaths in my first live phone interview at 10 am. By 5 pm the figure had jumped to 200 and across south east Asia the toll was 200,000 - quite like the situation in Burma which began with a toll of 351 and has risen alarmingly in the last 3 days.

The world is begging the Burmese junta to accept foreign aid because they need it. It will make the difference between survival and death for its citizens. India had also refused tsunami aid but for entirely different reasons. Keen to prove its dominance in the region and equally eager to keep the US out of its zone of influence, India said “thanks but no thanks.” We wanted to prove that not only could we manage our own affairs, we could help our neighbours too.

And in those early days after the tsunami, I’ll say we sure did. On the Indian mainland in worst hit Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s government did an outstanding job clearing bodies, cordoning off the beach, shifting people into temporary shelters, providing food and sanitizing the disaster zone. This doesn’t mean that things were working like clockwork, falling into place like a well-rehearsed drill. Quite the contrary because there was a fair degree of confusion and overlap in duties. The effort was outstanding because of the sudden injection of energy, commitment and creativity into the government machinery and its visible presence everywhere. No one could complain that the government didn’t care about them or wasn’t working for them. For someone whose default position is to be anti-establishment this was a refreshing revelation – when push comes to shove the government can deliver. Some of the smartest bureaucrats in Tamil Nadu were on the job leaving the western press a little incredulous that India remained disease free and the situation hadn’t descended into anarchy.

Of course there is an exception here too. Government response in the Andaman and Nicobar islands came late. This had as much to do with inefficiency as it had to do with the fact that island infrastructure was very badly battered. Ayesha Majid, a tribal leader gave an angry TV interview saying if the government didn’t want to help them that was fine but that it should stop lying to the world that everything was under control because her community was shattered and marooned.

But soon the exception became the norm. As people started sensing the opportunities in the midst of grief things changed. The zeal with which government officers had worked was later channeled towards siphoning off aid. The nationalist commitment slowly receded and the old demons of corruption and deceit surfaced once again. And I returned squarely to my default position.

However, it was wonderful, in those brief first few days, to see an Indian government that is capable of so much but alas, does so little.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Guilty until proven innocent. That seems to be the approach of law enforcement agencies towards a lot of Muslims in the lower socio-economic class in India. As the Sachar Committee Report of the Indian government points out, Muslims bear the twin burden of accusations of being “anti-national” and “appeased” at the same time.
What is often under-examined thanks to some of the noise the Hindutva brigade drums up about Muslim appeasement is that Muslims in fact face a lot of
structural violence in India; something that has gone up in the Islamophobic environment created after 9/11.

A recent question that appeared in a
history exam of the Ranchi University is of a piece with this structural violence. Apart from reflecting an utter and complete lack of academic rigour, it reflects the hardening stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, all happily fueled by the media, a distorted teaching of Indian history and of course the propaganda of the saffron agency.

The question in the university exam was, “Prophet Mohammed started his career as a trader and ended as a raider. Comment.”

There are so many prejudices and assumptions built into that statement that it is worrisome that the person who framed it was teaching. He or she has since been debarred.