Archive for the ‘India’ Category

On the Poverty of Indian Muslims

May 23, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

Being a Tribute to Dr. G.M. Mehkri 

The 2006 Sachar Committee report on the status of the Muslim community in India found that Muslims were amongst the poorest of the poor in the country.

How do we square that with the fact that up until 1857 Muslims had ruled parts of India for over 800 years? I mention this fact because, in the minds of some people, Muslims had expropriated all the wealth of India during this period and oppressed all the non-Muslims.

India has been independent for a little more than 60 years, so this transformation from being the owners of the land to being the poorest of the poor could not conceivably have occurred during this short period.

So, did the decline of the Muslims occur during the less than hundred years of British rule between 1857 and 1947? If so, how?

I don’t know.  I am writing this post partly to find out and partly to discharge a long-owed debt to Dr. G.M. Mehkri, a remarkable man in my opinion, who I met just once in the mid-1980s and have never forgotten because he had a very unique perspective on this issue.

Dr. Mehkri had a hypothesis that intrigued me. I don’t really know if it would survive a rigorous test but that seems beside the point. What fascinated me was the audacity and innovativeness of his thinking and his ability to communicate the excitement of such thinking to a younger generation. He was the kind of teacher one would have loved to have as a thesis advisor.

Here is the gist of his hypothesis as best as I remember after all these years:

Islam was born as a religion of the desert where land was of little value. The principal forms of property in the early years of Islam were animals (camels, horses, sheep) that are reproducible assets.

When a man died, his property was divided according to the Islamic law of inheritance to all his heirs in certain proportions. With reproducible assets, even if an heir inherited a pair of sheep, he/she could build up a stock again with a reasonable amount of diligence and common sense.

You should already be getting the drift of the story.

When Muslims came to India, they applied the same law of inheritance in a country where the principal form of property was land, which is a non-reproducible asset. You divide up land amongst the heirs and pretty soon (say over two or three generations) the size of a holding becomes uneconomic to farm. The owners have no option but to sell the land and join the category of the landless.

Dr. Mehkri had some extensions to this story:

First, the Hindu inheritance law and joint family institution were adapted to land being the principal form of property. This must have had many other implications but one that was relevant was that the process of inter-generational dilution of property was not the same. In general, Muslims whose land holdings became too small to farm did not sell out to other Muslims but to non-Muslims.

Second, that there were three Muslim trading communities (Bohris, Khojas and Memons, if I remember right) who converted to Islam from Hinduism but retained their old institution of joint property holding. These were the only three communities that remained prosperous amongst the Muslims.

Once again, I don’t know if these hypotheses would be sustained by detailed research but at the level of theory they do highlight the fact that the laws of inheritance have a great bearing on economic outcomes over generations. And this relationship has attracted very little attention.

There are a number of fascinating extensions that came to mind as I pursued the line of thought opened up by Dr. Mehkri. I will write about them in a later post.

To conclude this tribute, I want to return to the reason I raised the possibility that the British period might have a bearing on the phenomenon of Muslim impoverishment. Under the Mughals, all land was the property of the emperor and was subject to tax-farming under the mansabdari system. I doubt that the mansabdars cared whether those from whom they extracted taxes were fellow-religionists or not, just as modern factory owners don’t discriminate amongst their employees on the basis of shared identities. That should take care of the speculation that ordinary Muslims had benefited inordinately from Muslim rule in India.

But more importantly, if there were no ownership of land Dr. Mehkri’s theory would not have applied during that period. It was only under the British that the Permanent Settlements were introduced (beginning with Bengal in 1793) and private ownership of land became a reality with the mansabdars being transformed into lawful owners of their domains. Only after this change could the process of dilution of land holdings of this Mughal elite could have started.

This hypothesis is extended to include the implications of primogeniture in More on the Law of Inheritance.

I wonder if someone would be able to obtain a copy of Dr. Mehkri’s dissertation and delve into this topic in more depth. The details are as follows: Mehkri, G.M.  The Social background of Hindu-Muslim relationship, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bombay. Bombay: Bombay University, 1947, English. National Social Science Documentation Centre (NASSDOC), 35 Feroz Shah Road, New Delhi: 110001, India.

June 2011 Update: The NASSDOC copy is missing. A copy of the thesis has been located in the archives of the Bombay University library. I have not had access to it yet.


Democracy in India – 8: Dissecting the Election

May 20, 2009

Seen as separate events both the 2004 and the 2009 elections in India surprised the analysts and the political parties as well. But is it possible that seen in tandem the surprise falls away and a perfectly plausible story can be told?

Let me attempt such a broad-brush explanation before fleshing out the story:

In 2004, there was an anti-incumbency sentiment but no one magnet to which the disaffected were attracted resulting in a scattering of the vote and a fractured outcome. In 2009, there was a pro-incumbency sentiment with a clear recipient of the goodwill yielding a much more consolidated outcome. (more…)

What’s With Movie Stars in South India?

March 19, 2009

Now that we are engaged with issues of analysis this is a good issue to try our skills on.

We have often wondered about the political prominence of film related personalities (NTR, MGR, Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha) in the Indian South without devoting enough attention to come up with a decent hypothesis or explanation.

With the emergence of Chiranjeevi in AP as the potential ‘fourth-force’, we are face to face with the questions again. How do we explain the following?

  • The acceptance in South India of movie related personalities as leaders of political parties and as Chief Ministers.
  • The much less prominent profile of equally popular movie stars in North India – there are quite a few members of parliament but no political stars of equal rank.
  • The virtual absence of film stars in the politics of other South Asian countries.

In order to put this in a global perspective, we could also consider the following:

  • The absence of movie personalities in the politics of Europe.
  • The success of minor actors like Reagan and Schwarzenegger in the US.

We have picked up some interesting leads from our occasional contributor, Aakar Patel, but let us not disclose these for now.

The analytical task is the following:

How do we formulate some plausible hypotheses to explain this observed set of facts? How do we subject our hypotheses to some reasonable tests of robustness?

How do we go back and refine our hypotheses?

How do we know if we have a good explanation?

Let us try our hand at this interesting exercise.

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Gujarat: What Miracle?

March 18, 2009

By Dipankar Gupta

[Note from The South Asian Idea: This article forms part of the series (Governance in Pakistan) on this blog that deals with issues of analysis. The preamble to this piece by Professor Dipankar Gupta is an article on Narendra Modi by Robert Kaplan in the April 2009 issue of Atlantic Monthly (India’s New Face). The bottom line of Kaplan’s article is that “Under Modi, Gujarat has become an economic dynamo.” Professor Gupta’s op-ed originally appeared in the Times of India on January 31, 2009 under the caption Credit Misplaced. Note how much difference it makes when all the evidence is taken into account and the starting point is not chosen arbitrarily. Note also the varying explanations for the same set of events. Readers are invited to join this discussion and give their opinion on which of these two analyses is more robust.]

Gujarat grew at approximately 12 percent in 2006-7 against India’s overall growth of about 8 percent that year. Fantastic, said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and lauded Gujarat’s achievement. He must have stuttered on this praise, because all credit on this score would go to Narendra Modi.

But wait! What is so great about this statistic? In 1994-1995 Gujarat surged at the rate of 13.2 percent. Where was Narendra Modi then? In the years 1994-2001, Gujarat’s state domestic product registered a growth average of between 10 and 13 percent. At the tail end of this period Modi stepped in as Chief Minister. What then has Modi done that is so special?

Let us take a long look at Gujarat. This state was already among the top three in India by 1990. It took Gujarat 20 years after it was created in 1960 to climb up from the eighth rank to the third spot. Twenty years of hard work, led primarily by Congress governments, it may be added. Over 35 percent of its infrastructural augmentation for power generation happened between 1995 and 2000. If Gujarat today can show off its treasure chest, it should gratefully remember its pre-Modi past.

Besides other riches, Gujarat processes 49 percent of the country’s petroleum products. It also has India’s largest shipyard in Bhavnagar, as well as the giant Reliance refineries in Jamnagar. Even on something as pedestrian as Soda Ash, Gujarat is responsible for 90 percent of India’s production. All this happened well before Modi cut his political incisors.

So what is so dazzling about Gujarat’s current prosperity? Nothing really! In spite of decades of growth as usual, as much as 93 percent of Gujarat’s workforce toils in the informal sector. This is why growth is not always development. In fact, on the Human Development Index, Gujarat fell one place in 2003-2004, and now ranks below Kerala, Punjab, Tamilnadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka. In terms of rural prosperity Gujarat is at number five and well behind Punjab, the front ranker.

Now this is a hard one. Workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme in Gujarat receive half of what their counterparts get elsewhere. Interestingly, this fact was recently released by a Parliamentary Committee headed by none other than Kalyan Singh, a one time BJP stalwart.

Ernst and Young, consultants for Vibrant Gujarat conclave of 2005, ranked Gujarat’s investment climate behind Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, and on par with Karnataka. In terms of Workforce Quality, however, the same professionals gave Gujarat a very average “B grade” as it failed to measure up on a number of counts. It may be recalled in this connection that the Asian Development Bank in 1996 had ranked Gujarat as number two in India in terms of its investment climate. But in 2005, it was rated at number five. Perhaps the 2002 riots had something to do with this. 

Why then does it seem that Modi invented Gujarat’s golden wheel when it was already spinning? There are probably two reasons for this.

The first is the simplistic assumption that all communalists are intellectual clunks who can’t hold two ends of a book together. Modi was read as a one-talent wonder, good at leading riots from the front, but little else. Hence, Gujarat would soon show negative economic figures and, before long, its heirloom would be up for sale. But when that did not happen, Modi’s skills at book keeping, rather than bloodletting, began to draw attention. Instead of serving just death by culture, Modi cleverly stirred Gujrati garv (pride) into the pot. This made the state’s usual growth rates taste nicely different.

It was Modi’s highly personalized executive style, rather than his tidy store minding that attracted Indian corporates. They gave as much thought to Gujarat slipping in the development index as they would a drain inspector’s report. What mattered to them was the manner of delivery. Modi did not just give Nano shelter, but also readied permits for Ratan Tata in three days flat. Democratic stage fright? Never heard of it! Here was a man who could bend the law at will, but you had to be good to him. Sweetening politicians is easier than playing by the book.

So when Modi welcomed private capital to Gujarat, many Indian entrepreneurs, big and small, rushed to his side. They had at last found the patron they always longed for. The one feature that has endured India’s liberalization regime is the way our native entrepreneurs crave for political goodwill and protection. It was not as if only the riff raff ran to Modi, the big shots did too. And some of them were regular four star generals of corporate governance. So much for Business Ethics!

True, Modi is partial to business, but this isn’t news either. Gujarat consistently attracted a disproportionate slice of India’s private investment. But Modi’s tune was hard to resist not because it was new but because he delivered it with a bang. The first to sing along was Anil Ambani. After splitting from his brother he found an uncle in Amar Singh. But today he is a card holding Modi groupie. In the Vibrant Gujarat conclave he even advocated him as India’s Prime Minister. Sunil Mittal soon joined in, and then the chorus began. CEO’s now look at Modi just as ancient Israelis must have looked at Moses.

Beauty, in such cases, does not lie in the eyes of the beholder. It rather lies in the eyes of the beholden.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology at the Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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Why Indians are Stressed and Unhealthy

January 27, 2009

By Aakar Patel

Manmohan Singh had his arteries bypassed on Saturday, a procedure that increasing numbers of Indians are having. Last year, medical journal Lancet reported a study of 20,000 Indian patients and found that 60 per cent of the world’s heart disease patients are in India, which has 15 per cent of the world’s population.

This number is surprising because reports of obesity and heart disease focus on fat Americans and their food. What could account for Indians being so susceptible — more even than burger-and-fries-eating Americans?

Four things: diet, culture, stress and lack of fitness.

There is no doctrinal prescription for vegetarianism in Hindu diet, and some texts explicitly sanction the eating of meat. But vegetarianism has become dogma.

Indian food is assumed to be strongly vegetarian, but it is actually lacking in vegetables. Our diet is centered round wheat, in the north, and rice, in the south. The second most important element is daal in its various forms. By weight, vegetables are not consumed much. You could have an entire South Indian vegetarian meal without encountering a vegetable. The most important vegetable is the starchy aloo. Greens are not cooked flash-fried in the healthy manner of the Chinese, but boiled or fried till much of the nutrient value is killed.

Gujaratis and Punjabis are the two Indian communities most susceptible to heart disease. Their vulnerability is recent. Both have a large peasant population — Patels and Jats — who in the last few decades have moved from an agrarian life to an urban one. They have retained their diet and if anything made it richer, but their bodies do not work as much. This transition from a physical life to a sedentary one has made them vulnerable.

Gujaratis lead the toll for diabetes as well, and the dietary aspect of this is really the fallout of the state’s economic success. Unlike most Indian states, Gujarat has a rich and developed urban culture because of the mercantile nature of its society. Gujaratis have been living in cities for centuries.

His prosperity has given the Gujarati surplus money and, importantly, surplus time. These in turn have led to snacky foods, some deep-fried, some steamed and some, uniquely in India, baked with yeast. Most Indians are familiar with the Gujarati family on holiday, pulling out vast quantities of snacks the moment the train pushes off.

Gujarati peasant food — bajra (millet) roti, a lightly cooked green, garlic and red chilli chutney, and buttermilk — is actually supremely healthy. But the peasant Patel has succumbed to the food of the ‘higher’ trader and now prefers the oily and the sweet.

Marathi peasant food is similar, but not as wholesome with a thick and pasty porridge called zunka replacing the green.

Bombay’s junk food was invented in the 19th century to service Gujarati traders leaving Fort’s business district late in the evening after a long day. Pao bhaji, mashed leftover vegetables in a tomato gravy, served with shallow-fried buns of bread, was one such invention.

The most popular snack in Bombay is vada pao, which has a batter-fried potato ball stuck in a bun. The bun — yeast bread — is not native to India and gets its name pao from the Portuguese who brought it in the 16th century. Bal Thackeray encouraged Bombay’s unemployed Marathi boys to set up vada pao stalls in the 60s, which they did and still do.

The traveling chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain called vada pao the best Indian thing he had ever eaten, but it is heart attack food.

Though Jains are a very small part (one per cent or thereabouts) of the Gujarati population, such is their cultural dominance through trade that many South Bombay restaurants have a ‘Jain’ option on the menu. This is food without garlic and ginger. Since they are both tubers (as also are potatoes), Jains do not eat them, because in uprooting them from the soil, living organisms may be killed (no religious restriction on butter and cheese, however!). The vast majority of Ahmedabad’s restaurants are vegetarian. Gujaratis have no tolerance for meat-eaters and one way of keeping Muslims out of their neighborhoods is to do it through banning ‘non-vegetarians’ from purchasing property in apartment buildings.

Even in Bombay, this intolerance prevails. Domino’s, the famous pizza chain, has a vegetarian-only pizza outlet on Malabar Hill (Jinnah’s neighborhood). Foreigners like Indian food, and it is very popular in England, but they find our sweets too sweet. This taste for excess sugar extends also to beverage: Maulana Azad called Indian tea ‘liquid halwa’. Only in the last decade have cafes begun offering sugar on the side, as diabetes has spread.

India’s culture encourages swift consumption. There is no conversation at mealtime, as there is in Europe. Because there are no courses, the eating is relentless. You can be seated, served and be finished eating at a Gujarati or Marathi or South Indian thali restaurant in 15 minutes. It is eating in the manner of animals: for pure nourishment.

We eat with fingers, as opposed to knives and forks, or chopsticks, resulting in the scooping up of bigger mouthfuls. Because the nature of the food does not allow for leisurely eating, Indians do not have a drink with their meals. We drink before and then stagger to the table.

As is the case in societies of scarcity, rich food is considered good — and ghee is a sacred word in all Indian languages. There is no escape from fat. In India, advertising for healthy eating also shows food deep-fried, but in lower-cholesterol oil.

The insistence by family – ‘thoda aur le lo’ — at the table is part of our culture of hospitality, as is the offering of tea and perhaps also a snack to visiting guests and strangers. Middle class Indians, even families that earn Rs10,000 a month, will have servants. Work that the European and American does, the Indian does not want to do: cooking, cleaning, washing up.

Painting the house, changing tyres, tinkering in the garage, moving things around, getting a cup of tea at the office, these are things the Indian gets someone else to do for him. There is no sense of private space and the constant presence of the servant is accepted.

Gandhi’s value to India was not on his political side, but through his religious and cultural reforms. What Gandhi attempted to drill into Indians through living a life of action was a change in our culture of lethargy and dependence. Gandhi stressed physical self-sufficiency, and even cleaned his toilet out himself.

But he wasn’t successful in making us change, and most Indians will not associate Gandhi with physical self-sufficiency though that was his principal message. Indian men do no work around the house. Middle class women do little, especially after childbirth. Many cook, but the cutting and cleaning is done by the servant. Slim in their teens, they turn thick-waisted in their 20s, within a few years of marriage.

Since we are dependent on other people, we have less control over events. The Indian is under stress and is anxious. This is bad for his health. He must be on constant guard against the world, which takes advantage of him: the servant’s perfidy, encroachment by his neighbors, cars cutting in front of him in traffic, the vendor’s rate that must be haggled down. Almost nothing is orderly and everything must be worried about.

In the Indian office, the payroll is a secret, and nobody is told what the other makes. Knowledge causes great stress, though the lack of information is also stressful, leading to spy games and office gossip.

Because there is no individualism in India, merit comes from seniority and the talented but young executive is stressed by the knowledge that he’s not holding the position he deserves. Indians are peerless detectors of social standing and the vertical hierarchy of the Indian office is sacrosanct.

Dennis Kux pointed out that Indian diplomats do not engage officially with an American of lower rank, even if the American was authorized to decide the matter. In the last decade, when Indians began owning companies abroad, the Wall Street Journal reported on cultural problems that arose. Their foreign employees learnt quickly that saying ‘no’ would cause their Indian bosses great offence, so they learnt to communicate with them as with children.

Indians shine in the west where their culture doesn’t hold them back. In India honor is high and the individual is alert to slights from those below him, which discomfort him greatly.

There is no culture of physical fitness, and because of this Indians don’t have an active old age. Past 60, they crumble. Within society they must step back and play their scripted role. Widows at that age, even younger, have no hope of remarriage because sacrifice is expected of them. Widowers at 60 must also reconcile to singlehood, and the family would be aghast if they showed interest in the opposite sex at that age, even though this would be normal in another culture.

Elders are cared for within the family, but are defanged when they pass on their wealth to their son in the joint family. They lose their self-esteem as they understand their irrelevance, and wither.

This article is reproduced from The News (January 25, 2009) with permission of the author. Read the article in French here.

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Hinduism – 4: Early Interaction with Muslims

December 4, 2008

Continued from Hinduism – 3: Interaction with Muslims

This series of posts has a limited objective – to understand the nature and impacts of the historical interactions of Hinduism with Muslims and Britons. In order to make our point we took the incursions of Mahmud of Ghazna around 1000 AD as an adequate starting point. However, this created the impression that the first Muslims in India came as raiders. This is an incorrect impression and in fact there is an extensive prior history of peaceful contact. Although this history is not directly related to the objective of this series, it is important to document it in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Arab, Greek and Jew contact with the Malabar Coast of India had long existed on account of trade in spices and other articles and became predominant in the post-Roman period. Thus Arab contact with India pre-dates Islam. There were settlements of pre-Islamic Arabs in Chaul, Kalyan Supara and Malabar Coast and Arab merchants travelled along the Coromandel Coast on their way to China.

The emergence of Islam did not give rise to the Arab connection with India but it added a new dimension. Trade continued after the Arabs embraced Islam and Arab traders brought it to Malabar almost immediately. Colonies of Arabs became Muslim settlements and existed at major ports such as Cambay, Chaul, and Honawar. In other settlements along the Bay of Bengal the presence of Muslims is traceable back to the eighth century. The largest Arab coastal settlements were in Malabar where Muslims form a substantial part of the population today. These communities came into existence through the marriage of local women to Arab sailors. In Malabar, the Mappilas were the first community attracted to Islam because they were more closely connected with the Arabs than others. Mappilas comprise descendants of pure Arabs, descendants of Arabs through local women (the vast majority), and converts from among non-Arabic locals (mostly from the lower caste Hindus with some exceptions).

Native rulers extended facilities and protection to these communities because trade contributed to economic prosperity. The conversion of a local ruler to Islam further integrated the Muslim community into the social life of the region.

These trading contacts were accompanied by equally extensive intellectual exchanges.     

Indo-Arab intellectual collaboration was at its height during the reigns of Mansur (753-774) and Harun-al-Rashid (780-808). Embassies connecting Sind to Baghdad included scholars who brought important books with them, scholars were sent to India to study medicine and pharmacology, and Hindu scholars came to Baghdad as chief physicians of hospitals and as translators into Arabic of Sanskrit books on such subjects as medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, philosophy, and astrology.

In mathematics the most important contribution of India to Arabic learning was the introduction of what are known in the West as ‘Arabic numerals,’ but which Arabs themselves call ‘Indian numerals’ (al-ruqum-al-Hindiyyah). Indian medicine received even greater attention; the titles of at least fifteen works in Sanskrit which were translated into Arabic have been preserved, including books by Sushruta and Caraka, the foremost authorities in Hindu medicine. Indian doctors enjoyed great prestige at Baghdad and were personal physicians to the Caliphs. Many Indian medicines, some of them in their original names such as atrifal, which is the Hindi tri-phal (a combination of three fruits), found their way into Arab pharmacopoeia.

Literary works gained great popularity. Some of the stories of the Arabian Nights are attributed to India, and Arabic translations of the Panchatantra, popularly known as the story of Kalila and Dimna, have become famous in various Arabic and Persian versions. The games of chess and chausar were also brought from India and transmitted by Arabs to other parts of the world.

It is important to keep this narrative in mind as we cover the journey from the past to the present. Because so few students today are exposed to a study of history it becomes easy to project the present onto versions of the past that have no correlation with real events. The onus of verification rests on us.

To be continued…

Sources consulted:

1. Muslim Civilization in India by SM Ikram

2. Wikipedia on Mapillas 

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Terrorism – 1: How Do We Respond to Mumbai?

November 28, 2008

Mumbai is big but not as big as New York.
11/26 is huge but not as huge as 9/11.
India is powerful but not as powerful as America. 

What does this set of propositions tell us about how we should respond to 11/26 in Mumbai?

Think it over. There are two choices. We can root out terrorists or we can root out terrorism. They are not the same.

Powerful America responded to 9/11 in New York by vowing to root out terrorists. Pledging to get Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, it launched the War on Terror. Seven years later, there are more terrorists than ever before, more Americans have died than in 9/11, the number of innocent victims has been lost count of, the entire world is in turmoil, and the economic and financial systems have broken down.

So, when one hears Dr. Manmohan Singh state that he would get the perpetrators of 11/26 and Barack Obama repeat that he will root out terrorists, it gives one pause.

It is not difficult to understand the anger and the frustration, the visceral desire to tear the terrorists from limb to limb, to rip their livers from their abdomens and feed them to the vultures. But ask, the morning after, if this would root out terrorism.

It is quite natural to play a tragedy of this order for political gains, to not look beyond its implications for the next elections. But would that root out terrorism?

Would an Indian campaign to root out terrorists meet with more success than America’s War on Terror? Despite all the rhetoric surrounding every incident, has terrorism been on the rise or on the decline? Would a vengeful response buy security for India or a future filled with uncertainty and fear?

Does India see anything in the mirror of Israel?

Think over the two choices. Ask yourself if rooting out terrorists is the best way to root out terrorism. If not, channel your anger into a strategy that stands a better chance. Put yourself in the shoes of an uninvolved outsider and ask how you would begin to root out the curse of terrorism.

When we stop playing into the hands of terrorists, we would take the first step towards a secure future. It is a tough choice, but it may be the only choice.

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Democracy in India – 7

July 26, 2008

Let us put the big question on the table.

Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India?

In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.

On can start with the Enlightenment thinkers to understand the social conditions out of which the aspirations for equality emerged – we have done that in earlier posts. But the quickest summary of the second phase can be gained by looking at the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) who sought to persuade his fellow intellectuals to accept the legacy of the French Revolution warning them that it was impossible to turn the clock back.

De Tocqueville pointed out that the growing equality was inevitable and urged a focus on how liberty could be preserved in an egalitarian age  (one of de Tocqueville’s major fears was that democracy would degenerate into despotism). Equality of course meant political equality by definition because every man would have an equal vote. But more than that, de Tocqueville kept referring to the growing “equality of condition” which was not the same thing as economic equality. It meant that men had started viewing each other as social equals and wished to be treated as such irrespective of the differences in their income levels. To translate that into our frame, there were no longer any institutions or places (including the kitchen table) to which an individual could be denied access because of his birth or level of income.

In an excellent primer (Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002), Bernard Crick distinguishes three dimensions of democracy: democracy as a principle or doctrine of government; democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices; and democracy as a type of behavior (say the antithesis of both deference and unsociability). And he points out that “they do not always go together.”

Crick elaborates the third dimension as follows: “democracy can be seen as a recipe for an acceptable set of institutions, or else as a ‘way of life’ in which the ‘spirit of democracy’ becomes at least as important as the peculiarity of the institutions. For some think that the hallmark of such a way of life lies, indeed, in the deed and not the word: people acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal” (pages 9-10).

Let us now come back to India. It satisfies Crick’s first two dimensions but not the third. And this is the peculiarity of Indian democracy. The historical sequence mentioned above has been reversed. Democracy with universal suffrage has arrived before a social revolution that removed a hierarchical aristocratic order. In fact, even the idea of equality itself is not fully grounded in the polity.

Thus almost all comments about Mayawati feel it necessary to include the reference to her being an “untouchable;” there are quite unselfconscious remarks about the voting behavior of the “lower orders;” and one comes across journal articles with titles like the following reflecting the reality of contemporary Indian life: They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home.

Visionary leaders were quite well aware of these contradictions. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:

In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

It takes a long time to change structures and it is very messy. What one is seeing in India today is unique in human history – democracy and the vote being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that will accomplish what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the western world. But, in doing so, will it degenerate into the despotism that de Tocqueville feared?

It is history turned on its head and a fascinating process to watch and be part of.

The journal article mentioned in the text is to appear in Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, eds., The Middle Classes in India: Identity, Citizenship and the Public Sphere.

The quote from Dr. Ambedkar is from Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, page 15.

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Democracy in India – 6

July 20, 2008

The BBC is doing a fine job in India reporting events that compel readers to think about the broader implications of the story.

We had earlier picked up a story about the threat by purists to mixed religious communities. The post (Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?) has become quite popular on the blog suggesting that readers enjoy being engaged by challenging questions.

Now the BBC has reported on the goings-on preceding the July 22 vote of confidence in the Indian parliament. This too raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy in India. 

The story itself states very clearly: “When India is described as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’ it remains strictly true.” A story like this in Pakistan would most likely have found the reporter on the first plane out of the country. So there is no doubt that in relative terms governance in India has a much better record than other countries in South Asia.  

Still, a student cannot be content with the broad generalization that India is a democracy. The more interesting aspects pertain to understanding exactly what kind of democracy it is and what are its peculiarities. This is what the story helps to explore.

But first, the story itself.

Delhi notebook – deals and jailbirds

By Chris Morris, BBC News, Delhi, Published: 2008/07/18 16:20:55 GMT 

It’s been one of those weeks when the dirty innards of Indian politics have been on display in glorious technicolour.

There’s nothing like the prospect of a close vote in parliament to get the political pulses racing, and in Delhi’s sweaty summer heat a parliamentary vote of confidence in the government, due on 22 July, is likely to go down to the wire.

White Ambassador cars with flashing red lights have been zipping around the leafy boulevards of official Delhi with more urgency than usual.

And, all of a sudden, obscure members of parliament and minor political parties have found themselves at the centre of attention.

Both the government and the opposition have been trying desperately to woo them with promises of largesse, influence and plumb jobs.

One party leader much in demand, Ajit Singh, was offered a rather unique carrot when the cabinet approved a proposal to rename the airport in the city of Lucknow after his late father, Charan Singh, a former prime minister.

“Better late than never,” was the gist of Mr Singh’s response, as government officials insisted with perfectly straight faces that the timing of the decision was completely coincidental.

Other wavering members of parliament have been busy speculating in public about what kind of job might persuade them to vote one way or another. The Ministry of Coal, perhaps, or the office of Chief Minister of the state of Jharkhand.

That’s politics, you might think. But a more serious allegation came from a communist leader, AB Bardhan, who suggested this week that the Congress party was trying to buy parliamentary votes for about three million pounds (six million dollars) each.

The accusation was angrily denied. It’s a little rich, replied a Congress spokesman, coming from a party which has been financed from abroad for years. It’s not about money, he said, it’s about doing the right thing for the country.

Jail release

One thing is clear: every vote will count. And that’s why six members of parliament have had to get special dispensation to attend the debate.

Normally they’re in jail, serving time for crimes ranging from extortion and kidnapping to murder.

The Indian constitution allows them out on bail to attend important parliamentary votes. But the sight of convicted murderers entering the parliamentary chamber won’t be the most edifying of spectacles.

The most notorious of the six prisoners, Mohammad Shahabuddin, won his seat in Bihar at the last general election even though he was already in jail. His opponents say his political strength is based on fear.

If he’s allowed to stand again, don’t bet against another victory.

Point of principle?

In the midst of all this political theatre it is easy to forget that the vote of confidence was forced upon the government by a point of principle.

Communist and other left wing parties who’d helped give the Congress-led alliance a parliamentary majority withdrew their support in protest against the controversial nuclear deal with the United States.

If you listen to the Congress party the nuclear deal is about preserving India’s energy security in the future. If you listen to the communists, it’s about selling out to the Americans. Both see it as a matter of preserving the national interest. And the deal will stand or fall with the government.

But there are other issues at stake here as well, which are raising the stakes. India is in an era of grand political coalitions – no single party can ever hope to win a national majority on its own.

So the machinations of the last few weeks are also about getting on the right side of the political aisle in advance of the next general election. Even if the government survives this vote of confidence, it has to go to the polls by next May at the latest.

And that may be why it is struggling to win a majority in parliament now. Why, many MPs seem to be calculating, support a government that could be doomed to defeat shortly afterwards?

When India is described as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’ it remains strictly true.

But stitching together a national coalition, in a country where caste leaders and regional parties have more and more proven electoral appeal, is a desperately difficult task.

Plenty of messy deals have to be done in the backrooms, a long way from the prying eyes of the voters. Politics can be an ugly business. In that, at least, India is not unique.

End of Story 

The questions that one can ask based on the story are the following: 

  1. Why are the innards of Indian politics dirty?
  2. Were the innards of Indian politics dirty from the very beginning? If not, why and when did the deterioration begin? Will this deterioration be reversed? If so, what will trigger the reversal? If not, where will things end?
  3. Is the buying and selling of votes acceptable in a democracy?
  4. Are the votes of convicted criminals acceptable in a democracy?
  5. Why do voters elect convicted criminals?

Some readers might recall an earlier post on the blog (The Degeneration of Politics) that covers some of this ground. The post was based on Ramachandra Guha’s book, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. We had made the point that while the book was ostensibly written to celebrate the miracle of Indian democracy, an ironic subtext was the lament that the nature of Indian politics continued to degenerate.

We would welcome answers to the questions from readers.

This post is a response to a request from reader Suvradip Dasgupta. See his comment on the post Democracy in India – 1.

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Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?

July 14, 2008

The following story reported by the BBC is an intriguing one and we wonder what readers will make of it.  

Islam and Hinduism’s blurred lines

By Jyotsna Singh, BBC News, Ajmer, Rajasthan

Story from BBC NEWS, Published: 2008/07/11 16:20:24 GMT

Forty-two-year-old Sohan Singh is delighted to call himself a “full-fledged” Hindu.

Recently he cremated his mother, defying a family tradition of burying their dead.

Mr Singh is a member of the Kathat community in Rajasthan and follows what his community believes is a pledge undertaken by their forefathers.

Legend has it that the Mehrat, Kathat and Cheeta communities – with a combined total of one million people in four districts of central Rajasthan – are the descendants of the Hindu ruler of the warrior caste, Prithviraj Chauhan.

The three communities also have strong Islamic connections, because many centuries ago, their forefathers undertook a pledge to follow three Muslim practices.

These include the circumcision for the newborn male children in the community, eating halal meat and burying their dead.

That is the tradition many have followed, keeping the word of their ancestors. But it has also led to them facing something of a faith-based identity crisis.

Mixed identity

At a bustling market in Masuda town, a large number of people from the Mehrat community gather every day.

A majority of them are poor and illiterate. They are people with a mixed Hindu-Muslim identity. And left alone, that is how they would like to be.

Deepa, 60, has a Hindu name but he thinks he is a Muslim because he follows Muslim practices.

“In my family, we celebrate Hindu festivals such as Holi and Diwali. But we also offer namaz (prayers) at (the Muslim festival of) Eid. We worship both local gods and Allah. This has been a tradition in my family. I do not know whether my ancestors were Hindus or Muslims.”

Another Mehrat member is Mahendra Singh who has a Hindu name.

“We don’t care about being Hindu or Muslim. It is sheer politics,” he says.

Barely, 15km (9 miles) from Byawar town, Rasool runs a tea shop. He says his great grandparents were Hindus. But somewhere along the line, they became Muslims.

“It wasn’t such a big deal to be Hindu or Muslim,” says Rasool. His son Shankar is named after a Hindu god but he says they consider themselves Muslims.

“We are clearly Muslims. Only one of my three sons has a wrong (Hindu) name. It’s too late to change that. But it won’t happen again in our family,” says Madeena, Shankar’s wife.

For 65-year-old Shanta – like many others in this area – religion has become an issue.

She has many relatives who are Muslims. But her son-in-law is associated with the Hindu hardline group, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and her decision to declare herself a Hindu has alienated her from many relatives.

“My son wonders, why are we born in this community where there is so much confusion? I have told my son to cremate me as Hindus would their dead. My relatives boycott us, but that’s alright. I think our ancestors were forced to convert to Islam. We have to correct that,” Shanta says.


Organisations such as the VHP say they are trying to end this confusion in the lives of the community by making them realise their true identity.

The group has organised several mass conversion events in the area in the past years under a programme called the “Homecoming” or “Ghar Wapsi”.

“We remind them about their history, that they are actually the descendants of the Hindu warrior king Prithviraj Chauhan who lived in the 12th century and, therefore, they are Hindus,” the VHP general Secretary in Byawar, Nitesh Goel says.

“Some ill practices have crept into their behaviour, but this can be purified and they can become Hindus again. These people are not Muslims, they only follow certain customs that are common to Muslims. They are Hindus at heart and, therefore, should return to the religion,” he says.

Mr Goel insists his organisation is not carrying out any campaign for conversion or reconversion. “People contact us voluntarily,” he says.

But the VHP’s campaign has alerted Muslim groups in the area.

The state president of Jamaat-e-Islami, Salim Engineer, says until 20 years ago (when the VHP first began its campaign) Muslim groups were not even aware that there was any confusion with regard to their community.

“Many centuries ago, Mehrats declared themselves as Muslims. But they did not know what Islam was and so remained with the old culture. They do not follow Islam in an organised manner. The VHP is spreading hatred,” Mr Engineer said.

He also justifies the campaign by Muslim groups like Tabliki Jamaat to “educate” Mehrats about Islam.

“We are doing what the government has failed to do. The Muslim community all over India is seeking modern education. Along with that, we are also educating them about their religion,” he said.


This need to join organised religion is putting a lot of stress on families that have co-existed with members following their own customs. And religion so far has played little part in their lives.

Mange Ram Kathat was a staunch Hindu and then decided to become a Muslim because he felt a majority of his community were Muslims. He says he does not discriminate between the two religions but his daughter-in-law Jamna, a school teacher who follows Hinduism, is clearly upset.

“There is a lot of confusion in our household. There is tension between me and my husband because of my father-in-law,” says Jamna.

She says that she also does not like her father-in law’s Muslim outfit or his Islamic greetings.

“He should have remained a Hindu. Why did he do this?”

Though Mehrats are listed in the Other Backward Communities list and are as such entitled to benefits under the government’s affirmative action policy, the community has little access to basic facilities such as schools or employment opportunities.

Barely 25 years ago, the community members had a lot more flexibility to switch between the religions.

But the harmonious mix of Hinduism and Islam which existed in the community for many centuries is now visibly under threat.

End of Story

The aspects that struck us as interesting were the following: 

1. It is quite incredible, possibly beyond the imagination of most members of the young generation, that more than sixty years after the partition of the subcontinent, such mixed communities still exist. This suggests that such syncretic living must have been much more common earlier, a point made in a book that we have referred to in earlier posts – In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2006.

2. The members of the syncretic community are quite comfortable with their mixed identity: “They are people with a mixed Hindu-Muslim identity. And left alone, that is how they would like to be.

3. The community members’ perception of the relation between religion and politics is worth noting: “We don’t care about being Hindu or Muslim. It is sheer politics.

4. It is the outsiders who are not comfortable with this state of affairs: “Organisations such as the VHP say they are trying to end this confusion in the lives of the community by making them realise their true identity.” Isn’t this almost always the case?

5. The resulting compulsion to be on one side or the other is generating a lot of tension in the community: “This need to join organised religion is putting a lot of stress on families that have co-existed with members following their own customs. And religion so far has played little part in their lives.”

6. The freedom of choice has actually decreased: “Barely 25 years ago, the community members had a lot more flexibility to switch between the religions.”

7. The potential for conflict has greatly increased: “But the harmonious mix of Hinduism and Islam which existed in the community for many centuries is now visibly under threat.”

We would be curious to know what readers think of this story and how they react to it. The following questions can be considered:

1. Is the community living in a state of error?

2. How important is it for the community members to realize their “true” identity?

3. Do outsiders have a right to define what is “right” for the members of the community?

4. What is the basis for the outsiders’ conviction that they know what is right for someone else?

5. Is there no price that is too high to achieve the “purification” of identities?

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