The Lynching of JNU

Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it is known in Delhi and beyond, has once again been in the news for the last three weeks.  Its students have been protesting not only against large hikes in hostel fees, but against other features of the draft hostel manual which imposes a dress code and sets a curfew for students.  The university and nearby residential colonies have been swarming with police, but the students have been successful in taking their demonstrations to many parts of central Delhi and the area around Parliament.  There are reliable reports, and video footage, of students, including some who are disabled, who have been beaten by the police.  Students have been lathi charged, and many have been detained.  The Delhi Police has, predictably, denied all charges of police brutality, and rests its case upon the fact that the imposition of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws public assemblies of more than five people, means that the protestors are in violation of the law.

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JNU has long been one of the country’s most distinguished universities.  That, some might argue, says little considering that no Indian university, going by the Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings (2020), ranks within the world’s top 300 institutions of higher education, and JNU falls within the 601-800 rankings.  Even within Asia alone, JNU is ranked a measly 95th.  Nevertheless, the university has exercised an outsized influence in Indian public and intellectual life, and some of its graduates have gone on to gain global renown.  JNU justly celebrated the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to one of its graduates, Abhijit Banerjee, and a number of its graduates now occupy very high positions in the present government and the civil services.

Such rankings should, in any case, be treated be severe skepticism if not dismissed outright.  JNU has much else to its credit, all of which has made it the target of the present government and the university administration headed by a Vice Chancellor who has shown himself utterly incapable of exercising independent judgment.  More than any other university in the country, JNU remains a site of dissent.  Whatever distinctions its graduates and faculty have earned in the academic sphere, in scientific research, or in public life, many of them have shown that in a modern civilized society it is imperative that the university be safeguarded as one of the last bastions of free speech and dissent.  Four years ago, the government attempted to silence some PhD students—among them, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya—by charging them with sedition and criminal conspiracy, for no better reason than they had held a demonstration against the sentence of capital punishment that had been handed out to Afzal Guru, convicted of an attack on the Indian Parliament.

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Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Student Union leader. Source: Hindustan Times, 7 March 2016.

The culture of dissent, and independent thinking, cannot however by gauged only by an occasional show of protest, and what makes JNU stand out is the spirit of inquiry which informs intellectual and cultural life on campus.  This was demonstrated, in the aftermath of the government’s heavy-handed and much critiqued handling of the sedition case, by an extraordinary series of lectures on nationalism that were held outside the administration building.  The BJP government has sought, since it came to power in 2014, to capture nearly every state institution, and its inability to silence students at JNU has doubled its resolve to bring the university to heel.  JNU’s students are similarly emboldened to stand their ground, indeed for reasons that the government fears and cannot dare to acknowledge.  JNU is unique in that it draws half of its student body from families that live at the edge of poverty, living on Rs 12,000 or less a month. There are students whose fathers work as hawkers and landless laborers, and in hazardous industries as daily wage laborers.  The supposition of the government, of course, is that such students have no reason to study; they certainly have no right to dream of a better livelihood than their parents.

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If all of this were not enough to bring distinction to JNU, there is yet something more that makes the university absolutely singular in India. It is doubtless the first university to be publicly lynched.  The country has been witness for the last several years to many lynchings of Muslims and Dalits. Make hay while the sun shines, so goes the proverb, and some Hindu nationalists have been on the rampage knowing fully well that that they can commit, with full impunity, heinous crimes.  The idea of an institution being “lynched” may strike some as bizarre, but I doubt very much that the public lynching of JNU has any parallels in modern Indian history.  It may well be JNU’s misfortune that, being named after Jawaharlal Nehru, and having, on top of that, something of a reputation (deservedly or otherwise) as a left-wing institution, it was bound to exercise the attention of the present government, which absolutely loathes the name of Nehru and has lost no opportunity to ridicule the achievements and legacy of India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister.  Most recently, BJP Vice President Shivraj Singh Chouhan has charged Nehru with the “crime” of introducing Article 370 and “announcing ceasefire in war with Pakistan”, a view at once endorsed by Bhopal BJP MP Pragya Thakur who agrees that Nehru, having hurt “our motherland”, was “surely” a “criminal”. Thakur, we should remember, spent nearly a decade in jail on charges of being a terrorist and is technically still out on bail. One might speak of the pot calling the kettle black, but such proverbs would be lost on the illiterates who now command India’s destiny.

The government, having done whatever it deemed necessary to tame JNU, has now left the shaming and lynching of the university to the country’s middle class.  We all know of the television anchor whose trademark harangue, which would be comical if it were not so incendiary, begins with this line:  “The country wants to know . . .”  JNU students are now routinely accused of being anti-national, an allegation which makes a traitor of anyone who does not subscribe to the idea of Hindu supremacy.  But the demonization of JNU students has many other, equally disturbing, features.  A BJP MLA from Rajasthan’s Alwar District had claimed, following the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, that “3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette pieces, among other things,” are found at JNU “daily”, and that “girls and boys dance naked in cultural programmes” at the university.

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Cartoon by R. Prasad, Mail Today.

What he claimed then is now claimed by thousands of middle class Indians posturing as guardians of public morals who are convinced that JNU is a den of vice:  here girls dance naked and they are shameless in flaunting their bodies, both girls and boys are hooked on drugs, and university hostels are little better than places where sex can be had for the cheap.  JNU students, it is being said, are generally engaged in worthless research and are, in any case, much too old to be students.  Social media is awash with such stories.  One story doing the rounds on Facebook, shared 1,400 times within hours of it being posted, represented a 43-year old woman as a student whose daughter was also a student at JNU!  The story circulated with the hashtag, #ShutDownJNU.  The 43-year old woman was a figment of the imagination.

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An illustration of the stories circulating about JNU in social media: this one has the endorsement of IIT Madras Junta Against Leftist APSC [Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle] and bears the hashtag #ShutDownJNU. Source: https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/jnu-protest-fake-news-pictures-of-student-protesters-fact-check

Those agitating for the closure of JNU, or stern disciplinary action against students, are pathetic for yet other reasons.  Some of them have taken recourse to the argument, drawn entirely from the playbook of American populism, that JNU is a drain on public resources and that “tax-payers” should not have to subsidize lazy, old, and left-inclined students so that they can write on worthless topics which do nothing for the country’s economy.  The sheer poverty of such thinking is what should alarm the country.  This is apart from the fact that India’s middle class is notorious for tax evasion, and it can be safely said that many objecting to the waste of tax-payers’ money are evading the payment of their own taxes.  India has a seriously ailing economy.  As the loud shouting against JNU shows, what ails the imagination in India is equally frightening.

 

Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

It is indubitably the case that the five-month long, and still continuing, protest in Hong Kong over China’s attempt to subvert the so-called ‘one nation two systems’ mode of governance and subvert democratic norms constitutes a comparatively new if still uncertain chapter in the global history of civil resistance.  The world has been rather slow in coming to a realization of the extraordinary implications of a movement that cannot really be associated with anyone who might be termed a widely accepted leader, is fundamentally hydra-headed or anarchic in impulse, and, notwithstanding both immense provocations from the state as well as occasional lapses into violence on the part of some demonstrators, has remained overwhelmingly nonviolent.

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By “anarchy” I signify not the absence of law and order but rather, as in the original meaning of the term, the radical devolution of power.  Though the outcome of this revolt cannot be predicted, its reverberations will be felt for years to come—and not only in Hong Kong or China.  The histories of nonviolent and civil resistance will have to add a hefty chapter to the existing narrative.  There are salutary lessons in this revolt for those who are seeking to find avenues to resist oppressive state measures, just as, I suspect, states everywhere are looking at what is transpiring in Hong Kong with fear and concern.  Their apprehension arises from China’s puzzling failure, as it appears to them, to have suppressed the revolt.  It is not that China balks at the brute exercise of power.  There is Tiananmen Square to remind rebels of the fate that is likely in store for them:  hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese were killed and disappeared in that crackdown. The Chinese have herded a million Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region into so-called “re-education” camps that critics are terming concentration camps.  China relentlessly hunts down dissenters, wherever they may be, and it has spared no effort in bullying other countries to hand over political asylum seekers. Whatever “Asian values” it may seem to embody in its better moments, few and far between these days, China is ruthless in its suppression of dissent and in its insistence on the imperative to maintain “law and order”.

The question why China has not acted decisively thus far in the suppression of the revolt in Hong Kong is of far more than academic importance.  The view of the economists is that China can ill-afford to antagonize other countries, particularly Western powers, at a time when the economic slowdown in China is pronounced. Hong Kong represents one of the world’s largest financial markets, with a stock exchange that is larger than London, and China may be astute in not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes its own stock markets. We need not elaborate on the ongoing war between China and the US over tariffs.  But economists are nothing if not reductionists, and it is certainly a fallacy to believe that rationality guides most economic conduct.

Another pervasive argument is that China has for decades wanted to position itself as a responsible world power and that it is hesitant to take steps that might undermine its credibility.  This kind of thinking emanates, not surprisingly, from the hubris of Western powers who somehow think that they have been models of “responsible” conduct.  The United States, of course, leads this pack of wolves—and to think that it supposes it has been a “responsible” world power!  If as a responsible power it has waged several illegal wars, raided countries, engineered coups to overthrow democratically elected governments, supported dictatorships, and sabotaged many international agreements, one can only speculate with trembling fear what it might do as an irresponsible power.  There may, perhaps, be something to the argument that rash action taken in Hong Kong could have adverse consequences for China’s bid to put to rest the long-standing rift with Taiwan and absorb it into the People’s Republic.

What if, however, China’s reluctance to take decisive steps to put a halt to the revolt in Hong Kong stems from the inability of the Chinese government to understand the nature of the resistance movement?  States know precisely how to counter violence, but nonviolent movements are known to baffle and disarm the opponent.  The present movement has its antecedents in the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which commenced with the demand for more transparent elections and throughout retained an essentially nonviolent character.  The protests of 2019 have already outlasted the previous demonstrations and are, in intensity, scope, and gravitas of an altogether different magnitude.  On a single Sunday afternoon last month, nearly two million people are said to have gathered in protest at the city’s Victoria Park.

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The protests began with opposition to an extradition bill but, in the preceding months, the demands have not only multiplied but have become diffused in the most unexpected ways.  The demonstrators have asked for fundamental reforms in how elections are conducted and in the democratic process as a whole.  They have also demanded amnesty for all political prisoners.  But, more unusually, they have also insisted that the large-scale protest on June 12, the day when the bill was scheduled for a second reading in the legislature, should not be characterized as a “riot”.  To some officials this may appear as a rather opaque demand, but it would be no surprise, for instance, to a student of colonialism who is well aware of the fact that the colonial state constantly endeavored to reduce political protests to ordinary crimes.

There is much else in the protests that has left the functionaries of the state clueless about how to tackle this rebellion and its “instigators”—that is, if there are instigators, since one of the more remarkable features of the movement is the fluid manner in which the organic impulse to demand and protect freedoms has been conjoined to grass-roots level organization and coordination.  The demonstrators have displayed astonishing ingenuity in responding to state provocations and have come up with an arsenal of innovative tactics to defang the repressive status apparatus. Tear gas canisters have been extinguished with water bottles; traffic cones have been used to snuff out the gas before it spreads.  Using elementary hand signaling systems, protestors have conveyed messages down long human supply chains to warn of impending police activity. All this is really, pardon the cliché, the tip of the iceberg:  what we have in Hong Kong is the semiotics of a new architecture of mass-scale nonviolent street protest.  Political rebels with ambitions to craft resistance movements built from the ground up would be well advised to give serious study to the Hong Kong protests.

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Protesters in Hong Kong have been using traffic cones to counter tear gas. (Photo on the left by Antony Dapiran; image (screengrab) on the right by Alex Hofford).  Source: https://observers.france24.com/en/20190805-hong-kong-traffic-cones-shield-against-tear-gas

The questions that emerge from this riveting demonstration of the power of the people would have been critically important at any time, but take on even greater significance at this unusual juncture of history.  Nearly all over the world, established as well as younger democracies are under assault.  Some would like to characterize the period as one of “strong men”:  Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Rody Duterte come to mind.  And then there is Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits for the President and effectively installed himself as President of the People’s Republic of China for life.  Xi has no use for Mao’s baggy trousers or worklike uniforms and dons himself in crisp suits, and could easily be confused with the tens of thousands of people who constitute the technocratic managerial elite.  He even fancies himself as some kind of intellectual successor to Mao, peddling “Xi Jinping Thought” to party faithfuls and school children.  (A previous generation of students of politics and philosophy might remember “Gonzalo Thought”, named after the supposed new theoretical construction of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism by Abimael Guzman [aka Chairman Gonzalo], the leader of the insurrectionary group Shining Path who has been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism since 1992.) It is perhaps apt that the word ‘populism’ has been used to describe the political culture of our times, even if fewer commentators have paused to delineate the specific features of this populism. At this rate, there will be little left in a few years to distinguish between (most) democracies and authoritarian states.

The possibilities of dissent have, then, diminished greatly in most countries.  Earlier generations of nonviolent activists and civil resisters were able to deploy the media to great effect; publicity was their oxygen. It might even be argued that strategies such as those of “filling the jail”, whether in Gandhi’s India or Jim Crow South in the 1960s, were partly born out of the awareness that such actions were calculated to arouse the interest of the press. (One should be wary of abiding too readily by such a view, more particularly because the likes of Gandhi, King, James Lawson, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and too many others to recount in these struggles were rigorous critics of the notion of instrumental rationality.) The critic may point out that the media is, if anything, even more widely available to nonviolent activists today.  That is far from being the case:  the state everywhere has shown remarkable tenacity, will, and power to commandeer the media, in all its forms, to its own ends, and moreover in this era truth, which is intrinsically tied to notions of nonviolence, is the first casualty.  Hong Kong has gifted us not only a new architecture of street protest, the first one of its kind in the post-truth era, but also crucially alerted us to the fact that the question of dissent will be the paramount question of our times.

 

(This is a slightly modified form of the piece first published at ABP [abplive.in] September 14 as “Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Protest”.)

For a French translation of this article by Laura Beoschat, see this: http://laurabeoschat.fr/hong-kong-et-la-nouvelle-architecture-de-la-rue.html

For a Bengali translation of this article, click here.

For a Hindi translation of this article, click here.

*Reterritorialization and Neo-Liberalization:  “Opening Up” Kashmir

Even as much of the country has erupted with joy at the BJP’s audacious steps in abolishing the state of Jammu & Kashmir, creating two new Union Territories—little more than “Bantustans”, say some—and thereby, as is assumed to be the case, “integrating” the Kashmir Valley into the Union of India, some serious questions have arisen about the possible consequences of these changes.  Article 35(A), which was added to the Constitution through a Presidential Order on 14 May 1954, conferred on the legislature of Jammu & Kashmir the power to define “permanent residents” and the rights that accrued solely to them, among them the privilege of being able to buy land and property in Kashmir.  This provision has now been scrapped.

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Will Kashmir now be flooded by non-Kashmiris, as many are stating and some are hoping, and should we now expect real “development” as the Home Minister has promised?  Let us, for the moment, ignore the fact that, in comparison with most other Indian states, Kashmir already fares better on development indices, whether one considers infant or maternal mortality rates, under five mortality, levels of malnutrition, or the extent to which children have been immunized against common diseases. The painful truth is that almost no state in India can be described as truly “developed” in the conventional sense of the term; and some states—Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, to name a few—lag well behind the preponderant number of the world’s countries, and can only be compared to countries such as the Congo, Burundi, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  Will development for Kashmir mean direct investment in infrastructure, the creation of manufacturing jobs, and the growth of education, or will it also mean, which is absolutely certain, the purchase of properties in Kashmir as holiday homes by the rich of Delhi and Mumbai and unchecked environmental degradation?

There is an expression which for 200 years has guided colonial enterprises.  Africa was described by rapacious European explorers as finally having entered into the pages of history when the continent was “opened up” to European exploration, trade, and ruthless exploitation.  The “opening up” of Australia meant the evisceration of entire peoples just as the “opening up” of the Americas led to the genocide of native peoples and the disappearance of different modes of being in the world.  The narrative is now cast in a different if related language:  the “opening up” of Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union and the dismemberment of the Eastern Bloc signified the emergence of new markets and the entry of millions of people into the paradise of consumption.  Our Home Minister cannot stop gushing over the imminent “development” of Kashmir, but does this mean anything more than “opening up” the state to the unabated greed of Indian industrialists, loan sharks, and predatory capitalists?

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This book was first published in 1911.

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The possible further consequences of what is entailed by the “opening up” of Kashmir are perhaps best understood by turning to what may be described as the reterritorialization of Tibet.  In the first half of the 20th century, following the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was largely an independent nation. After the communists triumphed over the nationalists in China, Mao sought to integrate the TAR or Tibet into the People’s Republic.  The Dalai Lama was told in no uncertain terms that such integration could be accomplished peacefully, by his voluntary accession to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or by force.  The Dalai Lama accepted Mao’s 17-point agreement in August 1951, and Beijing lost no time in rolling out the narrative, which had been some years in the making, that Tibet had now been liberated from its feudal past and that Tibetans would no longer live as slaves to theocratic leaders. That surrender is captured in the farcical “Peaceful Liberation” Monument, now dominating Lhasa’s Potala Square, which also celebrates the entry of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Tibet.

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The Peaceful Liberation (of Tibet) Monument, Potala Square, Lhasa; photograph: A. Bleus; source: https://alixbleus.me/2016/11/01/tibet-peaceful-liberation-monument-potala-square-lhasa-mg_3620/

Some commentators have adverted to the cultural genocide effected by the Chinese in Tibet; others hotly dispute the use of the term “genocide.”  What is unquestionably the case is that, from the outset, the Chinese sought with utter deliberation to alter the demographic composition of Tibet—as they have done so in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, otherwise known as XUAR).  The strategy of territorialization did not commence with the Communists: indeed, it is the Qing who, in the 18th century, started bringing the Han Chinese, and settlers from other ethnic groups, into northern Xinjiang. Still, the 1953 census showed 75% Ugyurs and 6% Han; by 2000, the Han portion of the population had grown to 40%.

The settlement of Han Chinese into Tibet, as a matter of deliberate state policy, has a more complex history.  In 1949, shortly before Tibet’s absorption into the PRC, the population of Lhasa stood at around 130,000, not including the Potala Palace and some 15,000 monks. The Han Chinese amounted to a mere 300-400.  The dramatic demographic shift is captured in the 1992 census statistics on Lhasa:  in a population of 140,000, the ethnic Tibetan population had shrunk to 96,431 while the Han Chinese had grown to 40,387.  This shift was accompanied by the widespread destruction of monasteries, libraries, and other manifestations of the cultural inheritance of the Tibetan people.  This is what may rightly be described as reterritorialization, or the defacement and obliteration of the physical, cultural, and intellectual landscapes of a people and the imposition of a new demographic and socio-political reality.  Should we at all be surprised that China justified the introduction of Han Chinese into Tibet with the argument that “after the democratic reform”—that is, the annexation of Tibet—“the People’s Government helped all the former slaves, about 5% of Tibet’s population, and large number of homeless serfs to settle down.”  To introduce improvements in livestock breeding, agriculture, and medical care, it was necessary to bring the Han as instruments of “revolutionary change” to a “backward” place.  While China was thus “helping” and civilizing the hapless Tibetans, it was allowing millions of Chinese back home to die of hunger—again, with the absolute complicity of party officials.  This is what the Chinese, and our own Home Minister and his cheerleaders, call “development.”

Still, if the picture in Tibet is complex, it is because the Tibetan Autonomous Region as a whole remains 90% Tibetan.  The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959; the Potala Palace is now a museum; and dissent is dealt with sternly and swiftly.  There are Tibetans who dream of independence, no doubt, as indeed they should, but the Chinese shred these dreams into pieces. Some activists claim that the Tibetans have been reduced into a minority in their homeland: not only is this patently false but they fail to understand that the Chinese have accomplished what they set out to do.  To return, then, to Kashmir:  Some are prophesizing a Hindu invasion of Kashmir and the erosion of what is called Kashmiriyat.  That may well be alarmist, and the more pertinent question for those who follow events in Kashmir is whether the Indian state will effect something similar to what has transpired in Tibet by way of reterritorializing the Kashmir Valley.  What will they seek to efface from the extraordinary cultural legacy of Kashmir and how will they effect the changes in such a manner as to absorb Kashmir while giving it the semblance of “autonomy”?

First published on 12 August 2019 by ABP network:

https://www.abplive.in/blog/reterritorialization-and-neo-liberalization-opening-up-kashmir-1052781

*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.

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”

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Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

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The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

*The Greatest Show on Earth?  The Indian Elections and a Puzzle

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The Greatest Show on Earth: a poster from Barnum & Bailey Ringling Bros. Circus, 1913.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus described itself for well over a century as “the greatest show on earth”.  Political sensibilities changed enough over the last few decades to send it into obsolescence.  Animal rights activists had long complained that the circus exploited animals and was an affront to the majesty of nature.  But one can be certain that video gaming, the modern obsession with social media, the morbid addiction to smart phones, and the internet played a role in sounding the death knell of traditional forms of family entertainment.

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Patience Personified: Standing in Line to Cast a Vote in the General Elections, India, 2019. Source: BBC.

In truth, however, the Greatest Show on Earth in the post-World War II era has been the general Indian Elections.  Some have even likened the Indian elections to a circus: though the campaigning begins only a few months beforehand, it is a lively, garrulous, and combative affair where the antics of one candidate after another are likely to lead a person to gasp for air.  In every state, a not inconsiderable portion of the candidates have criminal records, though the worst of these candidates are more likely to compete for seats in the elections to the state legislative assemblies. The charges, moreover, are often not for comparatively mild criminal offences, but rather for murder, attempted murder, arson, and rape, among others.  No one appears to think it rather odd that candidates who pledge to make the streets safe for women or induce respect for law and order among ordinary citizens should themselves be the most egregious violators of the law.

The element of the bizarre has, of course, a great many other dimensions.  Thus, in the 1996 general elections, 1033 candidates contested for a single seat in the Modaurichi constituency in Tamil Nadu.  The names were too numerous to be accommodated in a ballot; a booklet was issued.  Though the CPM dominates among the traditional communist parties, the dozens of communist parties have often disputed arcane points of ideology as though the interpretation of a particular passage from Marx, Lenin, or Rosa Luxembourg was calculated to shift the fortunes of a country.  I suspect the vast majority of the 2,293 political parties that are registered with the Election Commission of India—the Commission recognizes seven as “national” parties, and another 50-60 as parties of demonstrable regional strength—similarly differ from each other in minutiae.

It is, however, the gargantuan nature of this exercise that has long captured the attention of the world.  The Indian electorate, at 900 million, dwarfs the electorate in any other country.  It grows by leaps and bounds every five years.  In the 2016 Presidential elections in the US, 138 million Americans cast their vote, constituting around 58% of all eligible voters; in contrast, 815 million people were eligible to vote in India in the 2014 elections, and nearly 66.5% of them voted.  Over a million polling stations have been set up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.  Nearly 11 million election personnel are helping to conduct polling, and 3.96 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) are being used.  One could reel off many more statistics in this vein, though, if I had to hazard a guess without tabulating numbers, I suspect that perhaps nothing is more impressive than the probable fact that the Indian electorate is greater than the electorate of all and certainly most of the world’s other democracies put together.

It is also a singularly impressive fact that, barring the imposition of an emergency by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975, which also extended the life of the 5th Lok Sabha, India has held elections regularly.  Mrs. Gandhi did call for elections in 1977 and went down to a crushing defeat.  One might say that the desire on her part for adulation from the public and legitimation at the polls curbed her authoritarian instincts.  There is much in her decision to seek redemption by putting her political future in the hands of voters that is puzzling and merits introspection.

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Indira Gandhi at an election rally in 1980. Source: Hindustan Times.

For the present, however, there is another and much greater puzzle in the story of elections that confronts the student of Indian politics.  The Election Commission’s guidelines stipulate that a voter should not have to travel more than 2 kilometres to cast a ballot, and the country’s highest polling station is at an altitude of 15,256 feet above sea level at a village in the Spiti Valley where it serves 48 eligible voters.  Remarkably, where necessary, election personnel go to a voter to ensure that no eligible vote is ignored.  In a remote part of Arunachal Pradesh, a 6-person election team traveled for three days by bus, on foot, and across hilly terrain and rivers to reach a single voter in the village of Anjaw.  All this appear to be an admirable commitment to democracy on the part of the Indian state. Indeed, the rest of the world sees it that way, and nothing on the Indian elections has done the international news rounds as much as the item on a polling station established in the heart of the Gir National Forest, home of the majestic Asiatic lion.  Here, at least for one day every few years, it is the sheer pomp of the Indian elections that steals the show. The booth is intended to facilitate the exercise of the democratic rights of a solitary voter, the caretaker of the local Mahadev temple known as Banej.

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Darshandas, better known as Bapu, walks to the polling booth set up for him in the Gir National Forest, home of the Asiatic Lion.

“Bharatdas Darshandas, the lone inhabitant and caretaker of a Hindu temple deep in the Gir Forest,” the correspondent of the New York Times has written, “has become a symbol of India’s herculean effort to ensure that the votes of every one of its 900 million eligible voters is counted.”  In a similar vein, the Guardian, visibly impressed by both the country’s faith in democracy and the resolve of the local priest who has “not missed a single election since 2002,” noted that four election officials, escorted by a policemen, trekked for 70 kilometres (45 miles) to ensure that a “69-year old holy man” got to cast his vote “in the world’s biggest democratic exercise.”  When we consider that the news from the United States, which has the world’s second largest electorate and where the elections determine not only the future of the country but the fate of many other nations, has revolved in good measure around voter suppression, the commitment in India to democracy seems worth celebrating.

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Tashigang Village in the Spiti Valley, 30 kilometres from the India-China border, has the distinction of being home to the world’s highest polling station at an altitude of 15,256 feet.

However, just exactly how are we to understand this somewhat heroic narrative of a state that lives in thrall of the Indian voter?  Many critics of how elections are in reality conducted have pointed to the phenomenon known as ‘booth capturing’, partly in response to which India began to make extensive use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) well over 15 years ago, though some have pointed to manipulation of these very machines as yet another problem.  One could also mention various other irregularities.  But these matters, important as they may be, are not at the heart of what I would call the puzzle behind the narrative of the sovereignty of the Indian voter.  It is not as if the Indian state cares at all for its subjects:  after 70 years of independence, India’s record with respect to nearly all the major indices of what conventionally counts for “development” is appalling.  Twenty-two of the thirty most polluted cities in the world are in India; the country is the so-called “defecation capital” of the world; a staggeringly large proportion of the population has no access to drinking water; state-run schools are, by everyone’s admission, in absolute shambles; the ranks of the unemployed are enormous.  One could go in this vein, ad infinitum:  the point is that everything suggests to the complete indifference of the Indian state to the vast majority of the citizens of the country.  The Indian state could begin by taking strident steps, as they have done so in China, to clean the air—and save millions of its citizens from early death and future generations from a nightmarish scenario.  Whatever one may say of other countries, it is no exaggeration to argue that in India there is no war on poverty but rather a war on the poor—for it the poor who suffer the most from dirty air, water, and soil, not to mention policies that have been designed with the intent of snuffing the life out of them.

Why, then, does the Indian state take such an interest in ensuring the right of every single voter?  It won’t do merely to say that political parties are cognizant of the power of the voter, or that in India, as in every other democracy, the “vote bank” has become a critical factor in how political parties position themselves to the public.  The state is not just a sum of political parties, and here it is not the conduct of parties that is in question; moreover, the notion of the “vote bank” does not explain the extreme lengths to which the Indian state goes in ensuring the right of a single voter in the middle of a thick jungle dozens of kilometres from the nearest polling station or remote Himalayan villages.  India must be singular among democracies in sending election officials with voting machines to remote villages, and it certainly does not send doctors to these same villages.  Apparently, by the reasoning of the state, the health of these people is less important than their vote—never mind that, if they are dead from lack of medical care, they cannot cast a vote.  One might also, perhaps with some plausibility, argue that India is aware that the world’s eyes are on its elections, and that the world delights in spectacles and narratives with a touch of the adventurous, the heroic, and the bizarre.  But that also seems far from being a wholly persuasive narrative.

Democracies the world over have sadly become merely electoral democracies.  It may be that in India, as some would say, this is most certainly the case. It is even possible to argue that elections, to the extent that they have overwhelmed the imagination and preclude the possibility of a democratic imaginary that moves well beyond the mechanics of voting, are profoundly anti-democratic.  That proposition needs careful and deliberate articulation—all the more so because, at least in India, the poor and the marginalized have been, understandably, more protective of the vote than those with privilege.  Universal franchise in India only came in with the first general election in 1951-52 and it is to the credit of the country that it was able to hold an election of that magnitude, with an electorate of over 235 million of which 45%, or almost 106 million, cast a vote—and this only four years after independence and 200 years of colonial servitude.  I suspect that, in the Indian state’s textbook and “herculean”—the word, the reader might recall, is from the New York Times article—effort to secure the right of every voter, there are residual memories of the anti-colonial struggle.  A critical part of this struggle, which Indian historiography does not recognize, was the effort that tacitly every Indian had to make to free themselves of the notion that they were merely part of collectivities—Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Sudras, Dalits, Kshatriyas, Bengalis, Tamils, and thousands of others.  The vote is precious to every Indian as it is one public exercise that permits the Indian to individuate herself or himself.  I started with the idea of the Indian elections as bearing the ambiance of a circus, but we should not scoff at what is undoubtedly the “Greatest Show on Earth”.

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at ABP [abplive.in], 2 May 2019)