The Kathua Rape Case: The Moral Collapse of a Civilization

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Tabrez Ansari:  the 24-year old man was beaten over hours and compelled to chant “Jai Shri Ram”:  he died two days later.

India has been awash with news of what are called “mob lynchings” over the last few years and another case has come to light of a Muslim man in Jharkhand who was tied up, beaten, and forced to chant Jai Shri Ram over a period of 12 hours.  The man, Tabrez Ansari, died several days ago.  Horrific as this atrocity is, it is also, we might say, part of an orchestrated chaos. One atrocity follows another; attention shifts from one ‘event’ to another, and we do not pause long enough to consider the moral implications of any one atrocity.  It is in the light of this that it behooves us to return briefly to what transpired at Kathua, which has receded into the background just days after the court adjudicated on the matter, and consider whether India has not already entered into a phase of moral collapse from which it may never fully recover.

Early in January 2018, an eight-year old girl belonging to the Bakharwal community was abducted near Kathua, which lies a little short of 90 kilometres south of Jammu. The girl was sedated, taken to a Hindu family temple (devasthan), and repeatedly gang raped by several men for five days before being bludgeoned to death.  Her assailants included the temple’s caretaker and pujari, Sanji Ram, who at 60 could have easily passed for the girl’s grandfather, even, considering the tender age at which girls are sometimes married off in India, her great-grandfather; his nephew, whose name cannot be taken as he is allegedly a juvenile; a young man, Parvesh, a friend of the juvenile whose help was enlisted in abducting and drugging the girl; and at least three policemen, including one sub-inspector, who like the others not only took turns raping the girl but extracted bribes from Sanji Ram to scuttle the probe. Morbid stories have been recounted of some of the assailants being summoned by text messages to have one last crack at the girl:  the Crime Branch, Jammu, has on record over 10,000 pages of WhatsApp messages and Facebook Chats which point to the complicity of the assailants and Sanji Ram’s son, Vishal, who was later acquitted for lack of evidence.

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The Bakharwals are nomads, overwhelmingly Muslim, who are goatherds and shepherds. It is said that Sanji Ram was seeking revenge for an apparent insult to his nephew, and that both and he and police officer Deepak Khajuria were keen on seeing the Bakharwals forced out of the area.  The Gujjars (cattle herders) and Bakharwals are the third largest ethnic group in Jammu & Kashmir, after Kashmiris and Dogras, and they have been struggling to secure implementation of the Forest Act.  Grave as is the question of their economic likelihood, which has always been precarious and has been rendered more difficult by the armed conflict in Kashmir which has placed many of the pastures out of bounds to the Bakharwals, the communal entanglements of the plot are still thicker.

For more than a week after the rape and murder of the minor girl, nothing transpired; when at last the police acted and took Sanji Ram and others into custody, India was witness to the most extraordinary, indeed diabolic, turn of events. Huge demonstrations were taken out in support of the alleged rapists and killers:  I say “alleged” only because their guilt had not yet been established in a court of law, though a special court in Pathankot earlier this month pronounced a verdict against six of them, sentencing Sanji Ram and two others to a term of life imprisonment and three others to shorter prison terms.  Those marching in support of the killers claimed that that they had been framed; among those present in the marches were two ministers from the ruling BJP.  Even ‘perversity’ does not begin to describe the spectacle of lawyers, who one imagines have some fidelity to the ideas of justice and the rule of law, shouting “Jai Shri Ram”—recall the assailants of 24-year old Tabrez Ansari, who compelled their victim to chant “Jai Shri Ram”—and attempting to prevent the police from filing a charge sheet.

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A demonstration IN SUPPORT of the racists and killers of the 8-year old minor, led by the Hindu Ekta Manch [Organization for Hindu Unity]. Source of photo: Indian Express.

Whatever the economic and communal dimensions of the underlying animosities, nothing can explain the sheer scale of the precipitous moral decline into which the country has fallen. Hinduism has long been distinct for reasons too numerous to enter into at the moment, but the pervasive element of the feminine, all the more salient when one juxtaposes it with the stern countenance of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, and the rigorous anti-idolatry of most of Islam, is one of Hinduism’s most pronounced features.  Shakta traditions have a stronger presence in some parts of the country than others, such as Bengal, but the worship of the goddess can be found nearly everywhere in India.  Where but in Hinduism among the world’s major faiths would one encounter the rites of Kanjak or Kanya Puja, which involve washing the feet of little girls towards the end of the Navratri Festival and recognizing them as emblems of the divine?  Can it be that the 8-year old girl who was raped and killed received no such recognition merely because she was a Muslim and the Hindu men who brutalized her were only deploying her body as a vehicle in their war against Muslims?

Three decades ago, Amartya Sen wrote that more than 100 million women were “missing” in India.  He was referring to the severe neglect of females, which begins with the female fetus and extends through infancy and adolescence to young womanhood.  Women may be known as devis (goddesses) and the mythic lore about the ‘feminine eternal’ is prodigious, but in modern India the emotional, physical, and sexual violation of girls and women is rampant.  It would be dishonest to pretend that the problem originated with the rapid ascendancy of Hindu nationalism.  There is comparatively little discussion of ‘dowry deaths’ these days, but in the 1980s and 1990s over 5000 such deaths were recorded every year—and this does not account for bride-burnings that were never registered.  Hindu nationalism is no part of this narrative:  shockingly, but perhaps not so, an affluent South Delhi neighborhood such as Vasant Vihar, chock full of wealthy Hindu businessmen, was one of the epicentres of this gruesome burning of women.  One cannot attribute such murders, for that is what they were, to illiterates, the unlettered and the unwashed, or country people.

What does it take to brutally gang-rape an 8-year old girl and then smash her brains with a stone? And how much more ‘fallen’ can be the state of those feverishly seeking to defend, with aplomb and in brazen view of the public, the perpetrators of a heinous crime and receiving the unstinting support of the local bar association?  The country was “outraged” when a 23-year old woman, who came to be known as Nirbhaya, was sexually brutalized on a moving bus in Delhi by several men in ways that are all but incomprehensible within some commonly accepted moral framework.  She succumbed to her injuries two weeks later. There were to be no more Nirbhayas, so the sentiment ran after 2012, but all that has happened is that now even little girls have no immunity from the depravity of grown-up men.

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Four of the six men involved in the “Nirbhaya Gangrape Case”.

On the 19th century colonial narrative, India was prone to severely mistreat its girls and women, judging from such phenomena as female infanticide, sati, cruel prohibitions on widow remarriage, and the widespread marriage of girls long before they had achieved puberty.  This narrative has its own intensely troubling politics, and we need not endorse all of it; but what is germane is this:  it is doubtful that the levels of bestiality now commonly encountered in India were to be witnessed in the 19th century or before.  The communal cast of what is transpiring in India presently is all too evident, and there can be no question that Hindu nationalism has greatly aggravated tendencies that have been brewing for some time. India is a country that has lost its moorings:  the moral certainties of yesteryears have disappeared and a rapacious and unforgiving Social Darwinism has become enthroned as the new order of our times.  The Kathua rape case is one of the many unmistakable signs in India of the moral collapse of a civilization.  One can only hope that many citizens of India will work to avert this collapse and that there will be no need for an Indian Gibbon.

*Climate Change:  A Catastrophic Future for India?

In India’s recently concluded elections, there was much that divided the BJP from an array of political parties constituted as the opposition, among them the Congress, the CPM, and the parties that forged the so-called mahagathbandhan.  But there was also much that was common to all the parties, nothing more so than the fact that climate change was almost entirely obscured as an issue deserving of the voter’s attention.  What does it mean for the country that not one political party has shown any real sensitivity to the question of climate change and any awareness of the catastrophic certainty that it will seriously erode any possibility of “normal life” for hundreds of millions of Indians unless the country changes course?

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New Delhi: Capital of India, and world capital of air pollution. Is this the royal city that the architects dreamt of?

To the extent that there is any discussion of climate change in India, it is most commonly viewed, rather erroneously, as being synonymous with “global warming” and that, in turn, has been reduced to the question of pollution.  It is unquestionably true, of course, that air pollution has altogether altered the landscapes—physical, social, economic, emotional—of everyday life in India.  The highly respected British medical journal, the Lancet, in a study published in December 2018 noted that 1.24 million deaths, accounting for 12.5% of all deaths in India, could be attributed to air pollution in 2017.  Delhi did not have a single day in 2018 when the air quality was recorded as “good”; alarmingly, it has the distinction of being the most polluted megalopolis and capital in the world, even if there are smaller cities, such as neighboring Gurgaon, that are still more polluted.

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Air pollution level monitor in Lodhi Colony, New Delhi.

Seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India.  Schools over most of north India have to be shut down every winter for at least a few days since the air poses a peril to children.  While the poor are disproportionately affected, and constitute the bulk of those who become “climate refugees”, elite South Delhi neighborhoods cannot escape altogether the dire consequences of hazardous levels of air pollution.  In a country where little these days is democratic, air pollution at least promises to be unsparing of the rich and the poor alike.

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Gurugram, formerly Gurgaon: not much is visible of this satellite city ringed by skyscrapers and fancy restaurants, as well as massive potholes and the usual ramshackle structures that constitute the Indian ‘city’. It has been named the most polluted city in the world alongside neighboring Delhi.

However, climate change signifies something even more ominous than global warming, which is a reference to the earth’s rising surface temperature on account of the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other gases and pollutants.  In consequence of this warming, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and the habitats of most wildlife are being decimated.  Though the process whereby nature has been altered by the impress of human activity has been going on for thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution precipitated a massive increase, by several orders of magnitude, in global warming; over the course of the last five decades, especially, the hand of man has “achieved”, if that is the word, in the span of one human lifetime what would have normally have been done over hundreds of thousands of years in geologic time.

Smoke billows as a truck drives past the waste of leather tanneries at a dumpyard in Kanpur

Kanpur in 2019: in British times, it was known as Cawnpore, and it is today another contender for the world’s most polluted city. The assault on the senses is of a magnitude scarcely comprehensible to those in the affluent West or Japan.

To live in the anthropocene age, then, means that we have to for the first time contend with the fact that human history intersects with geological history in unprecedented ways.  The complex planetary weather and climate systems have been altered by the hand of man.  Some parts of the earth are cooling, if in the short run, even as most others are warming; extreme weather events are becoming more common worldwide.  Himalayan glaciers have been melting at record pace, and the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, jointly authored by scientists from Nepal, India, China, Tibet, and Bangladesh, suggests that most of these glaciers will have disappeared by 2100, and in the Central and Eastern Himalayas by as early as 2035.  The loss of forest cover in India over the last 17 years is about four times the size of Goa:  the carbon locked up in the tissues of trees that are felled is released into the air and further contributes to the greenhouse effect. The entire phenomenon of climate refugees, often displaced when their farms and livelihood have been destroyed by an environmental disaster, and climate migrants to India, fleeing rising sea levels in Bangladesh and increasing salt-water intrusions in the Sundarbans, has barely registered in public discourse.  “By 2020,” the World Bank notes, “the pressure on India’s water, air, soil and forests is expected to become the highest in the world.”

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This picture taken on November 22, 2018 shows a general view of the Imja glacial lake controlled exit channel in the Everest region of the Solukhumbu district, some 140km northeast of Kathmandu. Photo Credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images.

The metropolitan centers in India have had something of a public discourse around pollution—caused largely by industrial emissions, household emissions, and vehicular traffic—since environmental activists such as Anil Aggarwal brought this matter to the fore in the 1980s.  Every winter there is something of a hue and cry over the unbearable levels of pollution, especially if schools are closed for a few days, but the country as a whole appears to be both singularly ill-informed about, and indifferent to, the entire question of climate change.  Academic work in India, barring a voice here and there, has continued apace as though speaking of climate change was a luxury in a country where issues of grinding poverty, resurgent nationalism, xenophobia, conflicts over caste, staggering unemployment, and violence against women stare one in the face.  The poor, of course, are more likely to be pushed into the ranks of climate migrants and refugees; they will be disproportionately affected by rising sea levels, climate-induced droughts, or rising temperatures.  The poor are also far more likely to be susceptible to respiratory problems or succumb to heat waves.  These are doubtless some of the reasons why the question of climate change remains to the elites and the country’s middle class something of an abstraction, though if they think that way they have yet to awaken to the fact that the devastations wrought of climate change will spare no one.

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School children in Delhi on a polluted winter morning.

 

As the recent elections demonstrated, political parties in India have shown little awareness of the critical importance of climate change.  The political manifesto of the Congress party devotes several paragraphs to “environment and climate change”, but strikingly Congress politicians made absolutely no mention of climate change when they were canvassing for votes.  People do not read manifestos, as the BJP surely surmised.  Not surprisingly, the BJP performance in this matter is, if anything, more pathetic.  The BJP manifesto speaks of increasing India’s “renewable energy” capacity, and how climate change and terrorism are issues which the country seeks to address. Just how climate change is to be addressed is altogether ignored.  Some politicians may think that installation of solar panels is enough to address the question of climate change, but that is only a reflection of how singularly ill-informed they are of the gravity of the problem.

Many people of liberal disposition with whom I’ve spoken have pointed to China’s apparent success in greatly diminishing pollution levels in the country’s huge metropolises, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.  Some readers might recall the headlines that appeared regularly in newspapers around the world in the early parts of this decade, through 2015-16, excoriating the Chinese government for unregulated development that had turned cities into death traps.  The Guardian, relying upon a study completed at the University of California, noted on 14 August 2015 that “Air pollution in China is killing 4000 people every day”. “Smog so Thick, Beijing Comes to a Standstill,” declared the New York Times on 8 December 2015 as an environmental emergency was declared and schools, factories, and major roads were shut down.  The latter newspaper, three years later, found it apt to reverse itself with this unequivocal headline:  “Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China is Winning” (New York Times, 12 March 2018).  Though the air pollution level in Beijing is still five times higher than the limit set by WHO, Beijing is not even half as polluted as Delhi, and air pollution levels in Beijing dropped by 40% over 2016-18.

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The pollution levels in Beijing and Delhi on 31 October 2018.

One is scarcely surprised, then, that Indians are being advised that the Chinese should be emulated.  One major Indian English-language daily’s view on this matter is representative:  “A Lesson or Two Delhi Can Learn from Beijing, Once Most Polluted,” declares the writer, suggesting that China’s “all-out-war against air pollution” is a model that India must follow if it seeks to save itself from “airpocalypse.”  The metaphor of “war” should itself be cause for concern:  we’ve had the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and all such ‘wars’ have, to use an euphemism with its own unsavory histories, collateral damage.  In the case of China, as a very recent scientific study suggests, a decrease in pollution levels in the large cities was achieved by moving energy production with the concomitant increase in air pollution levels to the countryside.  There is a larger problem here, and subject for other blog essays, namely that the countryside exists in most countries as ancillary to the city, as a place whose inhabitants are routinely called upon to sacrifice themselves for the nation.  The ‘Great Leap Forward’ exacted the lives of tens of millions nearly six decades ago, largely from the countryside where peasants dying from hunger were treated as disposable excess matter, and I suspect that the very same attitude persists to the present day, even if the sugarcoating has become more sophisticated.

This is not to say that there may be not be some “lessons” to be learnt in India from China’s attempts at reducing air pollution levels.  But there is far from being a policy on climate change as a whole in China that is worthy of emulation.  The only thing that is certain is that if we in India do not start addressing the question of climate change at once, there will be little, if anything, left to discuss a few decades from now.

 

For the French version of this article, translated by Jean-Etienne Bergemer, “Changement climatique: un avenir catastrophique pour l’Inde?”, click here.

*A Loss too Great to Behold:  The Passing of S. M. Mohamed Idris (1926-2019)

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S M Mohamed Idris, the Grand Old Man of Penang to the world, or “Uncle Idris” as he was known affectionately to his younger friends—and everyone was younger to him—passed on a late Friday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago.  He was the last of his kind:  kind and devout, yet fiercely disciplined and a taskmaster to everyone but never more so than to himself, a man of intense moral probity and perhaps more than anything else a relentless enemy of injustice, wherever and in whatever form it appeared.  Oh, yes, there was something else about him:  it was nearly impossible not to feel affectionate towards Uncle Idris, such was the radiance and goodwill that emanated from him.

Though born in India, Idris spent by far the greater portion of his nearly 93 years in Malaysia, most of them in Penang.  He arrived in the Straits Settlement in 1938, but, as far as I can recall from our conversations, he did not finish his education owing to the turmoil induced by World War II.  We did not speak very much about his past; in fact, he cared to speak little about himself, not only viewing that as a form of self-indulgence but as something that distracted from the urgency of the moment.  I first met him in February 2002 when he hosted a meeting in Penang, organized both at his initiative and at the behest of our mutual friend Claude Alvares, of a group that came to be known as Multiversity.  His sponsorship and mentorship of Multiversity tells us a good deal about him:  though Idris was not a man of strictly academic disposition, and was (some would say) impatient for results, he was not at all among those activists who had disdain for the academic world.  Multiversity may be described as an intellectual endeavor aimed at both the decolonization of the modern university and liberation from the intellectual dominance of the modern West.  Through a series of meetings in Penang, the last of which I attended in 2011, Idris continued to retain a vibrant interest in Multiversity and the projects that grew out of it.

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However, to Penang and the rest of Malaysia, Idris was the supreme builder of institutions who gave birth to the consumer rights’ movement in the country and whose name also became synonymous with struggles intended to provide the common people of Penang, and Malaysia more widely, with clean air and water, sensible mass transportation systems, and accurate information on the toxins that people are increasingly putting into their bodies, the perils of climate change, the problems of soil erosion, the desirability of forest cover, and so on.  The organization with which his name was indelibly linked for nearly five decades, the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), was founded by Idris and some friends and soulmates in 1970 and it became renowned throughout the world among consumer rights’ advocates.  However, it is critical to understand that CAP was never merely a successful “consumer’s association” in the narrow sense of the term, advocating for the rights of the public as consumers and ensuring that corporations and manufacturers abide by the highest standards and state regulations in the matter of consumer goods.  To be sure, if CAP determined that a product was defective and deserved to be recalled, the organization made known the facts to the public and prevailed upon corporations to do their bit.  But Idris was, as all right thinking people are, inherently suspicious of corporations and I doubt he was ever deceived into thinking that these behemoths could shed their intrinsic nature to be engaged in the unchecked pursuit of profit.  He might have thought that “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) was a shade better than corporations acting with total disregard of their responsibilities to communities, but Idris knew of course that CSR is nothing but a cover which permits corporations to gain credibility and win wider markets.

Since there was nothing by way of a consumer movement in the rest of southeast Asia, CAP’s mandate grew as well.  In its initial years, as I have already suggested, it appears to have worked on entirely local issues, rendering advise to the public on consumer-related matters, and drafting public policy documents on land redistribution and tenant rights.  This continued to be the most laborious aspect of its work, and consumers were given assistance on how complaints could be filed about faulty goods or services.  CAP’s work spread through the rest of Malaysia and into other parts of Southeast Asia.    But Idris then took CAP on to another plane of existence, and by the mid-1980s he brought CAP into conversation with other international NGOs, especially with a view to enhancing South-South cooperation; he also sought a platform to make known CAP’s views on such global issues as human rights, sustainable development, global warning, foreign aid, GATT [later superseded by WTO], alternative medicine, South-North relations, and so on.

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At a conference on “The Third World: Development or Crisis?” hosted by Idris and CAP in Penang in 1984 attended by over 100 participants from 21 countries, the Third World Network (TWN) was brought into existence with the intention of furnishing southeast Asian countries, in particular, with a forum for addressing the aforementioned issues.  Though closely associated with CAP, the Third World Network, with an international secretariat in Penang and offices in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and researchers based in Jakarta, Manila, Delhi, Montevideo, Accra, and elsewhere, had from the outset an independent existence and an extraordinarily wide-ranging publication program.  Its main organ, Third World Resurgence, is published monthly in English and Spanish, and has an international reputation; Third World Economics is a fortnightly economics magazine, also published in English and Spanish versions.  In addition, TWN furnishes articles to the media every week, and its Geneva offices publish a daily South-North Development Monitor, the SUNS Bulletin.

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It was as a consequence of CAP’s efforts and its wide-ranging work in the public sphere that the Malaysian government finally, sometime in the late 1970s, set up a Department of Environment. Idris led Sahabat Alam Malaysia, or Friends of the Earth Malaysia, for 40 years:  this organization, founded to combat environmental deterioration, was ahead of most similar organizations in the rest of the world, and Idris himself was attentive to the problem of climate change well before it became a commonplace in certain circles to start referencing it as the gravest challenge to humankind. Throughout, with the various NGOs that Idris had founded, Idris sought to insert itself into the debates raging around intellectual property rights, globalization, the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other facets of the imperial architecture of global trade and finance, the alleviation of poverty in the South, and growing disparities in wealth in, and among, nations.  But these grand issues were not the only ones to which he diverted his energy.  He was just as passionate, and perhaps more so, about “mundane” issues–alerting the public, for instance, to the growing resistance to antibiotics and our ominous love affair with sugar—or, what has for many become the same thing, death.  I don’t think I ever saw him with any drink in his hand except a plain glass of water:  in comparatively alcohol-free Malaysia, with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, Idris was mercifully free of the cola addiction.

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S. M. Mohamed Idris on World Diabetes Day.

Idris played as well a key role in the civic and political life of Penang, serving as city councilman and ombudsman.  It is no wonder that the “Who’s Who” of Penang turned up at his Georgetown residence after Idris’s passing to offer their respects.  One might go in this vein and continue to enumerate the remarkable achievements of S. M. Mohamed Idris.  He was a person of indefatigable energy:  though his last several months were difficult and he was in and out of the hospital, CAP officer and his long-time assistant, Ms. Uma Ramaswamy, told me during our phone conversation a few days before Idris passed that he was at his office desk the moment that his health permitted him and that, from his hospital bed, he continued to dictate letters and conduct the affairs of CAP.  To those who knew him, however extraordinary his achievements, it is his personal qualities that marked out him as a person of absolutely unimpeachable moral probity. He never made any demands on others that he did not first impose on himself and it is entirely characteristic of his utterly self-effacing nature that he rejected nearly all awards.  The sickening self-aggrandizement and vulgar performativity of celebrity seekers was entirely foreign to him.  He had little use for Twitter and Facebook:  the ordinary phone was enough for him.

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Paying their Respects to S. M. Mohamed Idris, 6 December 1926 – 17 May 2019.

But even all this cannot capture the peerless character of Uncle Idris. Four images of him resonate with me and will stay with me whenever my thoughts turn to him.  He had the most wonderful smile—as guileless as one can imagine.  Secondly, I never saw him in anything but his trademark white kurta and sarong, topped off by the songkok:  as he aged, the black kopiah and his generous white beard offer a luminous contrast.  Then there is the remark he once made to me, after one of the Multiversity meetings:  “We want the West off our backs.”  Idris fought the foul air and the stench of colonialism and neo-colonialism with equal vigor.  And, finally, the image that is indelibly etched into my memory:  invited to his home on numerous occasions for dinner, I was positively humbled by the fact that Idris always washed his own plate after the meal. Each member of his family did so.   The democratic spirit has to be inculcated at home before we dare to carry it abroad.

Earth, receive an honoured guest.

The Grand Old Man of Penang is laid to rest.

Let the Malaysian skies pour

As Idris travels to another shore

(after Auden, in memory of Yeats)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*On Being at the Top of the World:   Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest

I opened the newspapers on May 24th to two disconcerting even stupefying stories that are wholly unrelated and yet, to my mind, seem strangely if not inextricably linked in several ways.  Both stories captured the world’s attention, if for altogether different reasons.  In India, the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had not only retained his seat in Varanasi by a huge margin but he had led his party to a crushing and decisive victory over his political foes, scattering his opponents like atoms in the dust.  The Indian Express’s chief political columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headlined the achievement of Modi with the phrase, “Staggering Dominance”.  Some in the media spoke of his “landslide reelection”, while others described the unambiguous “mandate” he had received from the country.

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The Tweeting Yogi: Narendra Modi meditating at Kedarnath. He tweeted this image, just before the conclusion of the elections. Source: Hindustan Times.

In neighboring Nepal, meanwhile, the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, had become something like a clogged highway. “On Mt. Everest,” the article in the New York Times stated, “Heavy Traffic isn’t Just Inconvenient.  It Can Be Deadly.”  The photograph accompanying the article tells a story staggering in the extreme:  mountaineers are queued up, as people in South Asia often are at bus stations, railway ticket offices, cinema halls, and government offices, to climb the summit.  The line is several hundred meters long, perhaps even longer than a mile. Death at the highest point on earth can be caused by frostbite, oxygen depletion, long exposure to the inclement weather, high altitude sickness—and, now, a traffic jam.  Two climbers had died under these difficult circumstances when the first reports appeared on May 23-24; in the following days, at least another eight climbers died.  In 2018, by contrast, five climbers had died during the entire climbing season.

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The Zoo Atop the World: The line for the summit at Mt. Everest, May 2019. Source: Getty Images.

So what does it feel like being at the top of the world?  Narendra Modi would know, and what is wholly distinct about him is that he stands in singular and sinister isolation at the summit of Indian politics. The BJP had almost wiped out the Congress, and nearly all other opposition, in 2014; no one, barring perhaps the BJP, which in the voice of Modi has declared that it aims to win the votes of all 900 million Indian voters, thought that the 2019 election outcome would result in the further decimation of the opposition. Under the existing rules of the Indian Parliament, established by the first Lok Sabha speaker, G. V. Mavlankar, and finally codified under the Parliament (Facilities) Act 1998, an official “leader of the opposition” in either House cannot be declared until an opposition party has at least 10% of the seats.  With 44 seats in 2014 the Congress did not qualify as the “opposition” in the Lok Sabha, which has a membership of 543.  Having fallen short of the target of 55 seats by 3 seats this year, the Congress still does not quality.

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PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Source: The Hindu Group.

We may say, then, that Modi rules the Indian political scene much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi did in their times.  It may be comforting for Modi’s critics to believe that those who rise so spectacularly to the top are likely to have a precipitous fall:  that is not always the case.   The greater concern, to invoke Lord Acton’s maxim, is that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  If Modi and the BJP have captured all the institutions of state power, and bankrupted or emasculated those which are not so readily pliable to the will of the party, the circumstances for the longevity of Indian democracy in any meaningful sense of the term cannot be described as propitious.  More than 70 years after independence, the summit should have been crowded—with ideas, with the play of the imagination, with parties speaking in different tongues and articulating compelling narratives of social justice.  Instead, what do we find?  The Congress has become moribund, the Communists eviscerated.  There is only one narrative now—call it Hindu pride or call it the Hindu nation-state, but it is more effectively captured by one word:  Modi.  “In New India,” as one newspaper put it, “the prime minister towers above all parties, including his own.”

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An Image from Pakistani Television. Source: You Tube.

Ironically, at the summit of Mt. Everest, where it should have been all quiet, the parking lot is full. The Arizona doctor who arrived on the summit was in for a surprise:  on the flat part of the summit, about the size of two ping-pong tables, 15-20 mountaineers were jockeying for positions to take selfies.  He thought he had arrived at a “zoo.”  The saints who in India have for millennia been arguing that there is no solitude anywhere except within one’s own self perhaps knew a thing or two that we may be recognizing today—even atop Everest.  Why do people climb Everest?  We doubtless know all the answers:  the thrill associated with taking risks, the flirtation with death, the challenge it poses to even experienced climbers, the human need to continue to scale new heights, and others in that vein.  One person, I forget who, put it starkly, and with likely greater plausibility:  because it is there.

MtEverestLineForSummit2

Line Up, Please, for the Summit: The delights of Mt. Everest and Being on Top of the World. Source: National Geographic.

The history books which speak of Everest being first “conquered” by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway in 1953 are still closer to the truth in that they suggest, if unwittingly, that the narrative of conquest has all along triggered the exodus to Everest.  This exodus has, besides the zoo at the summit, created a veritable garbage dump all along the path from the base camp to the summit.  Though Modi stands singularly at the top of the world, and Everest as the top of the world has become a crowded place, Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest share, in more ways than we can imagine, threads of the same narrative of conquest, of twitter and selfies, and the difficulties of solitude and reflection in these times.  We don’t know how many lives have been discarded on the ascendant path to Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest and where it will stop.

(First published on ABP Live Blog under the same title, here.)