Tuesday, 22 March 2016

23rd March 1931: A Colossal Loss

Eighty five years after he was hanged to death, Bhagat Singh remains an inspiration to the youth of two countries. While much has been said about Bhagat Singh and his vision of a free and equal society, to my mind there still remains a huge what if. What if Bhagat Singh had lived on?

The idea is not as far fetched as it may sound. Remember, he was not even part of the original conspiracy to throw bombs in the legislative assembly in April 1929. What if the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association had stuck to its original plan? Is it not conceivable that he might have managed to evade arrest? Let us also not forget that he was tried by a special tribunal specifically created for the purpose and that the evidence presented could have very possibly been refuted in an ordinary court of law.

And what if that had come to pass? For sure, Bhagat Singh was an intellectual with a depth of vision and maturity that was astonishing for a young man in his early 20s. Contrary to popular imagination, he was in favour of a mass movement and abhorred violence unless absolutely required. Its not inconceivable that he could have built a mass movement based on the creed of communal harmony and socio-political equality.  He certainly had two essential qualities to lead a mass movement: the ability to inspire others and clarity of vision.

Imagine Bhagat Singh at the vanguard of a socialist movement post independence (he would have been a few weeks short of turning 40 had he been alive on 15th August 1947). Would it be inconceivable that his party could have formed a formidable opposition to the Congress in the years after independence? Indira Gandhi, post 1969, increasingly relied on a socialist plank to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the voter. Could that space not have been appropriated by another truly socialist party? And what if that party had been Bhagat Singh's? 

To be sure, that involves a lot of alternate scenarios, but in an alternate universe, Bhagat Singh could have gone on to become a legendary politician. We might have remembered him today as a former Prime Minister, not as a heroic youth who was martyred at the young age of 23. Admittedly, its unlikely that we would remember him in the same heroic light had that happened- politicians seldom (if ever) enjoy that luxury. Nonetheless, India would have been better served by a selfless and visionary leader like him. Given the cynicism that set in during the Indira Gandhi years, it is possible that Bhagat Singh could have provided an alternate, cleaner model of governance.

My personal view is that the passing away of Bhagat Singh was a colossal loss to India. In an alternate universe, I would have him serve independent India as a visionary leader.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Mahabharat- A metaphor for life?

There are countless legends regarding the origin of Diwali. One of them is that it marks the day on which the Pandavas returned to Indraprastha after thirteen year of exile. And so, the festival is intimately associated with both Hindu epics: Ramayan and Mahabharat.

For people of my generation, Ramayan or Mahabharat are, first and foremost, serials that appeared on Doordarshan in the late 80s. I was watching an episode of Mahabharat some days ago- the one in which Gandhari is informed that her to be husband is blind, whereupon she promptly blindfolds herself in solidarity with her husband.

Watching it on tv as a seven year old, I unquestioningly accepted it as part of the story. Viewing it after eight and twenty years, a sudden thought occured to me: was there a deeper meaning to it than the commonly accepted one? As if in a flash, it suddenly dawned upon me that there was much in the Mahabharat that could be interpreted metaphorically (to be sure, Mahabharat lends itself to multiple layers of interpretation).

Dhritharashtra, to this writer. is a man whose blindness was more spiritual than physical. Countless times in the course of the Mahabharat, he comes across as a man whose conscience is blinded by his love for his son. Gandhari's blindfold could just as easily be interpreted as a decision to emphasise obedience over conscience- just following orders- a theme that remains just as relevant in our own day.

In fact the conflict between duty and conscience is a recurring theme in the Mahabharata. Karna is torn between his inner voice and his duty to stand by his dear friend. Arjun too is overcome with emotion when confronted by his very own family members in the battle of Kurukshetra and finds himself unable to reconcile his attachment to his family with his moral responsibilities.

Several shraaps (curses) occur in the course of the Mahabharat, each one playing a significant role There is Pandu's curse of being unable to enjoy a conjugal relationship with his wives. Arjun too was cursed to be a eunuch for a a year- one that he would use to his advantage much later.  Karan too has his share of curses- notably Parshuram's curse that he would be unable to use the Brahmastra in his moment of need.

Perhaps the 'shrap' as it were is but a reference to the individual's past deeds coming back to haunt him. And so no one, not even the mightiest warriors, can escape the responsibility for their deeds. However, as we can see in the case of Arjun, even a curse/ weakness can be turned into a blessing/ strength if well managed.

Karna, all by himself, makes a fascinating study, He represents all that is right about human nature: generosity, commitment to values, bravery, will-power and strength, And yet, the same person also has moments when his actions are far from noble: he makes no effort to oppose Draupadi's humiliation. He is also complicit in the dishonourable killing of Abhimanyu.

In many ways, Karna is the very embodiment of the conflict between the right and wrong that inherent to human nature. And yet Karna ultimately emerges as a heroic figure. The not so noble actions of his simply illustrate the fact that no one is perfect. Yudhisthir- the very epitome of righteousness and the son of Dharmraj- is never viewed in the heroic light that Karna is. Perhaps it is a recognition of the fact that greatness is attained not because one is perfect, but in spite of one's imperfections.

It is remarkable that all these insights can be gleamed and debated over for ages. Whichever way you look at it, the Mahabharat has something on offer. If it has the elements of a masala film, it also has enough material for an intellectual discussion that could go on till the end of time. That it can still do so thousands of years after it was first narrated is by itself a tribute to its sheer genius.

This is the reproduction of an article I wrote for the now defunct website thoughtsconnect.com in October 2011.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Star is Born (?)

The Kanhaiya Kumar phenomenon continues to dominate headlines in the Indian media, the latest example being this article in the Indian Express today which appears to be a direct fall out of his now famous speech in the JNU campus on 11th February. Having heard his speech, I must say that he is an excellent orator. Unfortunately, knowing as I do a bit on the subject matter, it left me skeptical and even a bit cynical.

A little bit of background information would be in order here. Kanhaiya Kumar is undoubtedly a communist. He left no doubt where he stood in his speech, frequently using the words लाल सलाम (red salute)- the communist greeting. Secondly, the speech is primarily anti-RSS. Given his communist background and the history of bitter and bloody enmity between the communists and RSS, Kanhaiya Kumar's entire speech appears in an altogether different light. 

The young man claims to be fighting on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. The problem is, communism has been a proven failure across the world. Seven decades of communism left all former Soviet countries desperately impoverished. China too remained a backward country after nearly four decades of communism, until it chose to open up its economy to market forces and much the same can be said of Cambodia and Vietnam. But why go that far? West Bengal- ruled by communists for over 3 decades- is also one of the most desperately impoverished states in India. The state government's debts stood at a staggering 1,87,387.4 crores when the comrades were voted out in 2011- over 50% of the state GDP at the time.

Equally undeniable is that fact that communists in Russia, Cambodia and  China oversaw genocides which wiped out (using the most conservative estimates) over 30 million people -roughly the entire population of Kerala. If you think I'm exaggerating, just google 'pol pot', 'soviet famine of 1932-33' and 'great leap forward'. Anyone who imagines that communism is going to rescue millions of Indians from poverty has to be either plain ignorant or blind to reality.

Coming back to Kanhaiya Kumar, he said of the RSS that: "...अंग्रेज़ो के साथ मिलकर इस देश की आज़ादी के लिए लड़नेवालों के उपर गोलियाँ चलाई है ((they have) fired bullets at those who ought for freedom in collaboration with the British). Later in his speech, he denounces them as अँग्रेज़ों के चम्चे (British collaborators). There is a certain element of truth in that allegation. The RSS steadfastly advocated cooperation with the British during the second world war. 

Kanhaiya Kumar

But what about the communists? Having initially opposed the British in their war effort, they took a U turn on the instructions of their bosses in Moscow. Once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the communists wholeheartedly supported the war against the Nazis, who were threatening to destroy the only communist state in the world. In short, our comrades placed their ideology over the nation during the second world war. Under the circumstances, a communist who denounces anyone else as a traitor is on morally shaky grounds.

If that was not bad enough, Kanhaiya Kumar went on to demand reservation for Dalits in the private sector. I'm afraid the idea will do far more harm that good. Economic progress is a pre-requisite for upliftment of backward classes and that cannot be achieved without a vibrant private sector. As it is, India is one of the toughest places to do business in.  If the private sector has to grow, we need to make the regulatory environment easier for business, not introduce new rules. Age old prejudices will be wiped out the day the backward castes are economically strong and self dependent. As the experience of the last two decades have shown, capitalism has done far more to improve their condition than reservations could have ever done.

Lastly, he keeps speaking about the present government trying to suppress freedom of expression. Interestingly, he even made a passing mention of the emergency in that passage.
For starters, Its hard to reconcile that claim with the fact that he was criticising the ruling dispensation before a huge crowd. You can bet your last penny that he would not have dared to do that in a communist country like the former Soviet Union or China and if he had, he would almost certainly have disappeared without a trace by now. 

In any case, its not as though communists have covered themselves with glory in the states ruled by them. The manner in they hounded out non-communists from all major institutions in West Bengal is only too well known. Equally well known is the fact that they used political murder as weapon to intimidate opponents and stifle dissent in that state. Their comrades in Kerala are no slouches in that regard- the brutal, bloody rivalry between them and the RSS is legendary. And talking of the emergency, its worth remembering that the Communists were the only political formation which cooperated with Indira Gandhi's government during that period!

With that background, it can be safely concluded that Kanhaiya Kumar is at best a misguided young man with half baked knowledge, who is passionately advocating an ideology that is a proven failure. And that is after giving him the benefit of the doubt. If his knowledge is not half baked, there can be no doubt that he is just a cynical politician who has been given a fillip by the incompetence of Delhi police and the foolishness of a few fringe elements in the RSS.