அமெரிக்க வெளியுறவுத் துறை அமைச்சா் ஆன்டனி பிளிங்கனின் இந்தியாவுக்கான இரண்டு நாள் அரசுமுறைப் பயணம் போதிய ஊடக முன்னுரிமை பெறாமல் போனதில் வியப்பொன்றும் இல்லை. காஷ்மீா் தொடா்பான மனித உரிமை பிரச்னைக்கு ஆன்டனி பிளிங்கன் முன்னுரிமை அளிப்பாா் என்றும், நரேந்திர மோடி அரசிடம் கடுமையாக நடந்து கொள்வாா் என்றும் இருந்த பரவலான எதிா்பாா்ப்பு பொய்த்ததுதான் அதற்குக் காரணம்.
ஜோ பைடன் அரசு, வாஷிங்டனில் பதவியேற்றுக்கொண்ட பிறகு வெளியுறவுத் துறை அமைச்சராக ஆன்டனி பிளிங்கன் இந்தியாவுக்கு மேற்கொள்ளும் முதல் அரசுமுறைப் பயணம் இது. முந்தைய டிரம்ப் ஆட்சிக்கும் இப்போதைய பைடன் அரசுக்கும் இடையே எல்லா பிரச்னைகளிலும் கருத்து வேறுபாடு நிலவினாலும், வெளிவிவகாரப் பிரச்னைகளில் பெரிய மாற்றம் இல்லை என்பதை உறுதி செய்வதுபோல அமைந்தது ஆன்டனி பிளிங்கனின் இந்தியப் பயணம்.
இந்திய அமெரிக்க உறவுக்கு வலிமை சோ்த்திருக்கிறது ‘க்வாட்’ அமைப்பு. அமெரிக்கா, இந்தியா, ஜப்பான், ஆஸ்திரேலியா ஆகிய நான்கு நாடுகளையும் இணைக்கும் க்வாட் அமைப்பில் நாடுகளுக்கு இடையேயான உறவில் சில பிரச்னைகள் எழுந்திருக்கின்றன. குறிப்பாக, சீனாவுக்கு எதிரான ஒத்த கருத்து இருந்தாலும்கூட, அணுகுமுறையில் ஏனைய மூன்று நாடுகளும் அமெரிக்காவுடன் கருத்து வேறுபாடு கொண்டிருக்கின்றன. அதை சரிசெய்வதும்கூட ஆன்டனி பிளிங்கனின் இந்திய விஜயத்துக்குக் காரணமாக இருக்கக்கூடும்.
மாா்ச் மாதம் ‘க்வாட்’ உறுப்பு நாடுகளின் காணொலி கலந்தாய்வு அமெரிக்காவால் நடத்தப்பட்டது. அதைத்தொடா்ந்து செப்டம்பா் மாதம் நான்கு நாடுகளின் தலைவா்களும் நேரில் கலந்துகொள்ளும் உச்சிமாநாடு ஒன்றைக் கூட்டுவதாக முடிவு எடுக்கப்பட்டிருக்கிறது. அமெரிக்காவைப் பொருத்தவரை ‘க்வாட்’ என்பது சீனாவுக்கு எதிரான ராணுவ பாதுகாப்பு அமைப்பு. அதில் இந்தியா ஒரு முக்கியமான கூட்டாளி என்று அமெரிக்கா உணா்கிறது.
சீனாவின் சா்வதேச ஆதிக்கத்துக்கு எதிரான வலுவான அமைப்பை உருவாக்குவது தனது நிா்வாகத்தின் முக்கியமான நோக்கம் என்பதை அமெரிக்க அதிபா் பைடன் பலமுறை தெளிவுபடுத்திவிட்டாா். சீனாவின் தடுப்பூசி ராஜதந்திரத்தையும், கடல் ஆதிக்கத்தையும் எதிா்கொள்ள ‘க்வாட்’ அமைப்பும் இந்தியாவும் அமெரிக்காவுக்கு மிகமிக முக்கியம்.
ஆப்கானிஸ்தானில் நிலைமை நாளுக்குநாள் மோசமடைந்துவரும் நிலையில், அமெரிக்க வெளிவிவகாரத் துறை அமைச்சா் ஆன்டனி பிளிங்கனின் இந்திய விஜயம் மேலும் முக்கியத்துவம் பெறுகிறது. ஆப்கானிஸ்தான் தலிபான்களின் ஆதிக்கத்தில் சிக்கிவிடாமல் இருக்க வேண்டுமென்பதும், அதனால் பயங்கரவாதத்தின் ஊற்றுக்கண்ணாக மாறிவிடக்கூடாது என்பதும் இந்தியாவின் தேவைகள். அதற்கு அமெரிக்காவுக்கு அழுத்தம் கொடுத்தாக வேண்டிய கட்டாயம் இருக்கிறது.
எதிா்பாா்த்தது போலவே, பிளிங்கன் விஜயத்தின்போது ஆப்கானிஸ்தான் பிரச்னை முன்னுரிமை பெற்றது. ஆப்கானிஸ்தானின் வருங்காலம் அடிப்படை உரிமைகள் மறுக்கப்பட்ட, வன்முறையின் மையமாக இருந்துவிட முடியாது என்கிற பிளிங்கனின் அறிவிப்பு கவனத்துக்குரியது. ஆப்கானிஸ்தானில் இந்தியாவின் பங்கு முக்கியத்துவம் வாய்ந்தது என்பதையும் அவா் தெளிவுபடுத்தி இருக்கிறாா். அமைதியான, பாதுகாப்பான, ஸ்திரத்தன்மையுடன் கூடிய ஆப்கானிஸ்தான் மலர வேண்டும் என்பதில் இந்தியாவும் அமெரிக்காவும் ஒத்த கருத்துடன் இருப்பதாகவும் தெரிவித்திருக்கிறாா்.
ஆப்கானிஸ்தானிலிருந்து தனது துருப்புகளை அமெரிக்கா விலக்கிக்கொண்டதைத் தொடா்ந்து அந்த நாட்டின் பல பகுதிகள் தலிபான்களின் ஆதிக்கத்துக்குள் சென்றிருக்கின்றன. கடந்த 20 ஆண்டு கால வளா்ச்சிப் பணிகளும் முன்னேற்றமும் அமெரிக்காவின் அணுகுமுறையால் முற்றிலும் சிதைந்து விடும் ஆபத்து காணப்படுகிறது.
ஏறத்தாழ மூன்று பில்லியன் டாலா் (சுமாா் ரூ. 22,305 கோடி) மதிப்பிலான இந்திய முதலீடுகள் ஆப்கானிஸ்தானில் செய்யப்பட்டிருக்கின்றன. தலிபான்களின் கைகளில் ஆப்கன் சென்றுவிட்டால், இந்தியாவின் முதலீடுகள் அனைத்தும் வீணாகிவிடும்.
தங்களது படைகள் திரும்பப் பெறப்பட்டாலும் தெற்காசியாவின் அமைதியையும் ஸ்திரத்தன்மையையும் அமெரிக்கா உறுதிப்படுத்தும் என்றும் பிளிங்கன் தெரிவித்திருப்பதன் அடிப்படை என்ன என்பது தெரியவில்லை. நமது வெளியுறவுத் துறை அமைச்சா் எஸ். ஜெய்சங்கருக்குத் தெரிந்திருக்குமோ என்னவோ?
பிளிங்கன் விஜயத்தின் மூலம் இந்தியாவும் அமெரிக்காவும் சீனாவுக்கு மறைமுகமான எச்சரிக்கையை விடுத்திருப்பது பலரது பாா்வையிலும் படவில்லை. தலாய் லாமாவின் பிரதிநிதி கோடுத் டாங்சுன்னை இந்தியா வந்திருந்த அமெரிக்க வெளியுறவுத் துறை அமைச்சா் சந்தித்தது சீனாவை நிச்சயமாக நிமிா்ந்து உட்கார வைத்திருக்கும். இதற்கு முன்பு மத்திய திபெத் நிா்வாகத்தின் தலைவா் லோப்சாங் சங்கே 2016-இல் வெள்ளை மாளிகையில் அமெரிக்க அதிபரை சந்தித்ததற்குப் பிறகு நடக்கும் அமெரிக்காவுக்கும் இந்தியாவிலிருந்து இயங்கும் திபெத் நிா்வாகத்துக்கும் இடையே நடக்கும் இரண்டாவது சந்திப்பு இது.
திபெத் பகுதியில் மேற்கொள்ளப்படும் வளா்ச்சித் திட்டங்களை ஆய்வு செய்ய திடீரென்று முன்னறிவிப்பு இல்லாமல் சீன அதிபா் ஷி ஜின்பிங் திபெத்துக்கு விஜயம் செய்தது சா்வதேச அளவில் பரபரப்பை ஏற்படுத்தியது. எல்லைப் பகுதியில் நடந்த ஆந்த ஆய்வை இந்தியாவுக்கு விடுக்கப்பட்ட பாதுகாப்பு எச்சரிக்கையாகவும் எடுத்துக்கொள்ளலாம். அதற்குப் பதிலடி கொடுக்கும் வகையில் அமைந்தது பிளிங்கன் - டாங்சுங் சந்திப்பு. அதனால் பரபரப்பு ஏற்படாவிட்டாலும், சா்வதேச அளவில் சலசலப்பை ஏற்படுத்தியிருக்கிறது பிளிங்கனின் இந்தியப் பயணம்.
Many men in Manikpur spend seven-nine months of an Assamese year on the road. A large village in Assam’s Bongaigaon district, about 185 km west of Guwahati, Manikpur has for decades been the ‘setting’ source of several Bhramyoman groups.
The Assamese year of 365 days starts mid-April of a Gregorian calendar. Bhramyoman translates into mobile theatre and ‘setting’ entails a range of activities from putting up tents to decorating the stage. A travelling theatre group of an average of 150 persons has 55-60 stage workers engaged in settings.
About five months ago, more than 30 stage workers boarded a bus in Manikpur. “This would have been routine had the bus not been sent by a Kerala-based firm that offered them jobs,” says Abhijit Bhattacharya, a playwright associated with mobile theatres for 22 years.
About one-fourth of some 4,000 stage workers and technicians employed directly by at least 30 Bhramyomans have left Assam for jobs or in search of greener pastures after the first COVID-19 wave eased by October 2020. Most of those who stayed back, primarily because of age and because they had not picked up any other skill, have been struggling to sustain their families.
Gunajit Das, who played multiple musical instruments for 30 years, has switched to vending fish on a bicycle after selling vegetables that did not earn him enough for his family of five. Fellow musician Prabhat Roy, who spent 35 years with mobile theatre groups, has become a ‘jogali’ (helper) to a mason. Pratap Boro, who played the violin, mandolin and flute for 32 years, has opened a small pan shop. Stage craftsman Lohit Pathak earns whenever people need his service for cutting or filling up earth. The situation is similar for theatre troupe cooks Dharma Roy and Dilip Das. Setting specialist Remsing Teron wields an axe to sell firewood. All of them are from districts across Assam: Bajali, Baksa, Barpeta and Nalbari.
The more resourceful have managed to stay afloat. Music director Jatin Pathak of Manikpur turned his attention to his agricultural land to become an organic farmer. He commands a good price for his produce. “Many of us never thought beyond theatre. The lockdown taught me to have a backup plan,” he says. Popular actor and playwright Champak Sarma opened a restaurant in Guwahati’s Gorchuk. “The new business has not been profitable with the restrictions in place but I hope to see better days for the restaurant as well as for mobile theatre,” he says. Two of his plays –Danab(Demon) for the Itihash Theatre group andDraupadir Bastraharan(Draupadi’s Disrobing) for the Kohinoor Theatre group – were among the last to be staged before the 2019-2020 mobile theatre season ended prematurely in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Struck by a virus
Pathsala, about 80 km east of Bongaigaon, is perhaps the only town that “prospered” post-lockdown in 2020. In August that year, it became the headquarters of Bajali, Assam’s 34th district carved out of Barpeta.
Prior to the administrative upgrade, Pathsala was known primarily as the hub of Assam’s mobile theatre. It was here that Achyut Lahkar, a pioneering dramatist, actor, director and producer, founded the Nataraj Theatre, the first of the Bhramyomans in 1963.
He was inspired by the Jatra, a popular folk theatre form of Bengal, but tailored his theatrical presentations to local specifications and tastes besides adopting a unique business model. He let a local committee in Pathsala publicise his plays, organise the shows and take a share of the profit in return. All the 132 mobile theatre groups – at least 32 of them remain – born after Nataraj have followed this cooperative business model based on informal agreements. Nataraj Theatre folded up after the death of Achyut Lahkar, revered as the father of the Bhramyoman, in 2016.
A stone’s throw from Achyut Lahkar’s house is the complex that his relative Ratan Lahkar constructed in Jyotinagar, a locality in Pathsala near the landmark Bhattadev University. Ratan Lahkar, who died in 2017, founded the Kohinoor Theatre in 1976 after several groups tried to do a Nataraj only to fade away. Kohinoor’s co-founder Krishna Roy broke away to form the Abahan Theatre in 1978 but sold it to popular Assamese cinema and theatre actor Prastuti Parashar a few years ago.
Kohinoor brought in the element of special effects withMahabharat, a costume drama that took the audience by storm in 1984 with cinematic fight sequences. It shot to international fame by adaptingTitanicin 1998, using indigenous special effects to turn and sink the ill-fated luxury ship on stage. In 2010, Kohinoor became the first Assamese mobile theatre group to stage three plays at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts at the invitation of the National School of Drama in New Delhi. Apart from plays, the troupe presented special effects scenes in theTitanicandDinosaur, a play based on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
Kohinoor soared as theTitanicsank in more than 200 shows during the 1998-99 season. The Bhramyoman season starts mid-July. Two months go into readying three plays and rehearsing with the actors, dancers and musicians. The shows start around Vishwakarma Puja (mostly September 17) and end on the eve of Bohag or Rongali Bihu (usually April 13). Each troupe sets up its temporary stage and hall for three nights each at 75-80 places, ending a season without breaks even if there are natural calamities or political disturbances, with 210-235 shows.
“Mobile theatres have withstood many a challenge. Often, our theatrical adaptations became more popular than the films they were adapted from. The travelling theatres thrived as the Assamese film industry suffered. We held our own against all other forms of entertainment – cinema, television and even digital. But an invisible virus has deflated us,” says Tapan Lahkar who took over charge of Kohinoor from his father.
Kohinoor lost about Rs. 15 lakh when shows were cancelled for 12 days during the violence that erupted against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019. Most Bhramyomans thought it was a temporary setback like the two-month hiatus in 1983 at the peak of the anti-foreigner Assam Agitation. The mobile theatres overcame the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom’s threat in 2007 to stop them from destroying Assamese culture with “Bollywood-inspired stories” and the counter-insurgency operations in the 1990s when security forces discouraged people from venturing out at night. The mobile theatres have traditionally been staged at night with the last show at 5 a.m.
Mapping the route
Representatives of the All-Assam Mobile Theatre Producers’ Association headed by Bordoisila Theatre owner Nazrul Islam met Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma over a fortnight ago for restarting the show to bail out of poverty hundreds of people associated with the industry.
The association has so far recognised 22 theatre groups, the criteria for membership being at least two consecutive years of sustainable operation. There are about 10 non-member groups that have a small budget and operate mostly in villages within a district or two unlike the big-budget groups that perform across Assam and beyond.
“If we can start the 2021-22 season in October even with 500-600 viewers compared to the normal 1,500-2,000, we may be able to stay afloat. The government said it will ramp up the vaccination drive. This will facilitate a sizeable audience for the mobile theatres. If the situation does not improve, it could be very tough for theatre groups to be revived later,” Tapan Lahkar says.
The glimmer of hope has made the likes of Lankeswar Barman, the manager of Kohinoor Theatre, fish out the seasonal travel map. “Our travel route is planned around where our group will perform on Shasthi (sixth day of the 10-day Durga Puja, usually in October). Our performance calendar is fixed as and when we ink an agreement with a local organising committee. Experience is needed to juggle with the dates of more than 70 organising committees every season and plan the routes so that we don’t end up travelling 100-150 km in different directions,” he says.
Each travel theatre has two sets of “skeletons” — bamboos, wooden planks, iron frames, etc. — of a 130x90 ft temporary hall inclusive of a two-in-one stage. The route is planned in such a way that the stage workers travel the least on the night of the third and final day of the shows from place A to set up the theatre in place B in time for the first show there. The last stop of a group is invariably a place 15-20 km from its base.
Important for the rural economy
The survival of the mobile theatres is crucial not only for the groups but also the rural economy, says Suresh Ranjan Goduka, a mass communication design researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati. He had done a project on the Bhramyoman-driven economy more than a decade ago. “Mobile theatres work on two payment systems – a nine-month contract and lump sum. In the first category are the star actors mostly from cinema and TV and the general character actors, dancers, members of the orchestra, sound arrangers, background voice artists, make-up artists, costume designers, tent and stage workers, lighting technicians, set designers, transporters, managers and up to eight cooks for the entire travelling team. On lump sum pay are the directors, choreographers, music directors, art directors, playwrights and lyricists,” he says.
There are also graphic designers and printers, who have been deprived of their “assured” seasonal income from the theatre groups since the 2020 lockdown.
“Before the pandemic, the annual turnover of the Bhramyomans averaged Rs. 25 crore with the major groups investing about Rs. 2 crore. Some attracted corporate sponsorship. More importantly, Bhramyomans stimulate various indirect economic activities by contributing to the local economy with seasonal employment and community contribution. Numerousnamghars(Vaishnav prayer halls), libraries, voluntary associations and schools have been built all across Assam and mostly in rural and semi-urban areas as a result of the profit-sharing between the theatre troupes and the host committees,” Goduka says.
A local committee negotiates the deal with a theatre group ahead of the season and pays an advance ranging from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh. The advance is adjusted with a fixed amount per first show per night to be paid to a theatre group. The organising committee takes 30%-40% of the money collected from the second show and gives the rest to a group. The collection from the third show – in the case of smash-hit plays – is shared 50:50.
“Whether or not a committee profits from the first show, it has to pay us the fixed amount according to that agreement. Besides, a committee takes care of the accommodation of the troupe members, provides a kitchen and firewood. We spend on transportation and food,” says Subodh Majumdar, producer of Theatre Bhagyadevi based in Nalbari district’s Morowa. Founded by his father Sarat Majumdar in 1976, this group had made a passenger aircraft take off in the playHijack, based on the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The way forward
Kalpajit Hazarika, producer of the Jorhat-based Hengul Theatre believes staging a comeback would be an uphill task. One reason is the damage of acoustic and other equipment and tent and stage materials because of non-use over a long period of time.
“Starting afresh needs an investment of Rs. 40-45 lakh, and we are not sure of recovering the cost because of the prevailing uncertainty. More importantly, the issue is to get experienced technicians, many of whom have gone out for jobs,” he says.
Synchronising a play on a double stage is a special skill set not many can handle. The scenes move from one stage to the other like a fast change of frame in a film.
Some groups have taken strength from Gitashree Theatre, a small budget group based in Morigaon. Gitashree was the only group to stage some plays adhering to guidelines such as physical distancing and providing hand sanitisers to the viewers for a few months before the second COVID-19 wave struck.
“The emotional attachment with and popularity of Bhramyoman should see us through a difficult phase. But it will be easier for smaller groups with a minimal budget to rebound compared to the major groups which have more to lose because of the volume of investment,” Abahan’s Parashar says.
Bhagyadevi’s Majumdar is apprehensive of how the audience will react after the gap. “We are not sure how the country’s economy has impacted them, whether they can afford spending on a non-essential mode of entertainment and whether the younger generations will get over their addiction to their smartphones,” he says.
He has already begun thinking in terms of leaving the theatre business if the “age of social distancing” does not give way to “social gathering” that the Bhramyomans depend on. “I sold off three trucks and have started undertaking local contractual assignments to fall back upon,” he says.
Jiten Das, a dancer-choreographer for 18 years, has joined him as an employee for contractual jobs. “This is better than going out with a spade and shovel in search of work back home in Poritopa Thutikata village (Nalbari district),” he says.
According to Tapan Lahkar, the mobile theatres began feeling the pinch with producers competing to add glamour to their plays. It began with Assamese film star Jatin Bora in 2005-06, who ended up earning six-seven times more from the theatre than from movies. The budgets subsequently became bigger as producers broke a tradition by bringing film effects specialists from elsewhere to execute plays that turned Bora into a dwarf or a fat blob on stage. The oneupmanship saw another actor, Mridul Chutia, playing triple roles – a dwarf, a person of normal height and an abnormally tall man – for another group. “Quality suffered as producers relied more on gimmicks, masala, glamour and double entendre,” he says.
Bhattacharya says there are very few playwrights who can maintain both quality and quantity, who can race against time, and gauge the capabilities of the actors. “We go from historical and mythological to contemporary and social issues after interacting with the actors a producer ropes in. I have ended up writing 20-25 scripts in a season,” he says.
The last of his plays were the historicalJoymotifor Abahan Theatre, the mythologicalSakuntalafor Surjya Theatre, social dramasMadhubalafor Abahan andSonar Kharu Nalage Mokfor Itihash Theatre.
Bhattacharya says nobody could have envisaged the pandemic. But the Bhramyomans became complacent about their popularity, never bothering to set up institutes to train people in a range of theatrical skills. “I have been insisting on a mobile theatre policy like we have a film policy, although the government did try to come up with one in 2013. We also need an archive to preserve everything about this cultural tradition for generations to come,” he says.
“Mobile theatres do not have the industrial tag and are hence not included in government support schemes. They want to avoid complications in taxation, but a formal structure could have made them eligible for insurance. Their economy is solely based on the number of people in the audience, which is why the COVID-19 restrictions have damaged them like never before,” Goduka says.
Theatre producers are not sure how a new experiment by Guwahati-based Nexster Studios to stream their plays on digital platforms would pan out. “We are paying the artists for recreating plays to be released online via an app. Our fingers are crossed,” the studio’s Ashim Nath says.
But there cannot be any replacement of the real thing, says Nagen Deka, secretary of Nalbari’s Hari Mandir Committee. One of the largest theatre organisers, this committee hosts as many groups on its nine fields, especially during the October-November Raas festival and Durga Puja.
“Mobile theatre is an inseparable part of our cultural heritage. Many livelihoods are associated with it and organising committees benefit from them. The public facilities we have, including schools, have come up from the money from mobile theatres. Yes, we lose some when the shows do not click. But the profits for the society at large far outweigh the losses to not want them back as soon as possible,” he says.
A conceptual audit of questions related to geopolitics and security concerns while talking or thinking about the Himalaya is perhaps long overdue. There is no gainsaying the truth that we have been examining the Himalaya mainly through the coordinates of geopolitics and security while relegating others as either irrelevant or incompatible. In a certain sense, our intellectual concerns over the Himalaya have been largely shaped by the assumption of fear, suspicion, rivalry, invasion, encroachment and pugnacity. If during colonial times it was Russophobia, then now it is Sinophobia or Pakistan phobia that in fact determines our concerns over the Himalaya. Within the domain of geopolitics and security, conceived by that which lies outside the Himalaya, a process that decolonial scholars such as Pauline Hountondji refers to as extroversion. Ironically it is the Delhi-Beijing-Islamabad triad, and not the mountainper se, that defines our concerns about the Himalaya. Are we not really leading Himalayan studies towards the dead end of violent intellectual pursuits?
A national Himalaya
If extroversion in the field of knowledge production has resulted in academic dependency, in the case of Himalayan studies it has given birth to the political compulsion of territorialising the Himalaya on a par with the imperatives of nationalism. Thus the attempt to create a national Himalaya by each of the five nations (Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, and Tibet/China)that fall within this transnational landmass called the Himalaya. The National Mission on Himalayan Studies, for example, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, is a classic case in point that provides funds for research and technological innovations, but creating policies only for the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR). The Mission document avowedly claims: “The Government of India has come-up with this Mission in recognition of the fact that the Himalayan Ecosystem is important for ecological security of India (https://bit.ly/3x8dOMB)”. Thus, comes the Indian Himalaya. It reminds us of that ancient parable where a few blind men were trying to fathom how huge an elephant was by touching only the different parts of its body.
By considering cartographic fixations as the natural limit of scholarship, we have overburdened Himalayan studies with the concerns of States in place of people, culture, market or ecology. India’s understanding of the Himalaya is informed by a certain kind of realism, as the Himalaya continues to remain as a space largely defined in terms of sovereign territoriality, in contrast to alternative imaginations such as community, ecology or market. It may be perceived that such an alternative conceptualisation of Himalaya is not only possible but also necessary. But can we really work out such an alternative imagination especially when we find territorialisation and securitisation to be the two dominant modes through which the Himalaya is imagined both in the official context, and, by extension, in popular discourses.
A historical logjam
The Himalaya’s territorialisation bears a colonial legacy which also sets up its post-colonial destiny as played out within the dynamics of nation states. The arbitration of relationships between and among the five nation states falling within the Himalayan landmass has failed to transcend the approach derived from the given categories of territoriality, sovereignty and difference. As such, the fact that the lines of peoplehood and the national border, especially within the context of the Himalaya, never coincided, is bound to give birth to tensions while working out projects predicated upon national sovereignty. Given this historical logjam, what we can only expect is the escalation of territorial disputes as the immediate fallout when infrastructure development projects in the border areas are adopted by constituting nation states to secure their respective territories falling within the Himalayan landmass.
Borders and their differences
It needs to be recognised that political borders and cultural borders are not the same thing. Political borders are to be considered as space-making strategies of modern nation-states that do not necessarily coincide with cultural borders. In other words, while a statist imagination has a telling effect on the way a border is understood in political terms, culture in that sense defies the (political) idea of border or at best considers it as permeable, penetrable, connective, heterogeneous and one that can be accounted for mainly through dreams, passions, flows and livelihoods. The singular statist conception of a political border would then appear to become a ‘polysemic’ or even ‘rhizomatic’ when viewed in cultural terms, and, by extension, in terms of trade and ecology or the environment.
It needs to be realised that human security cannot be effectively appreciated through the paradigm of sovereign territoriality, although state systems operating within the Himalaya have failed to devise any other framework to grapple with the issue of security. More often than not, the state has dominated the agenda of defining the domain of non-traditional security (such as human rights, cases of ecological devastation, climate change, human trafficking, migration, forced exodus of people, transnational crime, resource scarcity, and even pandemics) besides setting the tone of an approach to handling traditional security threats (such as military, political and diplomatic conflicts that were considered as threats against the essential values of the state, territorial integrity, and political sovereignty). Interestingly enough, it has often appeared as a fact that the measures to deal with traditional security threats from outside have in fact triggered non-traditional insecurities on several fronts on the inside.
Understanding the Himalaya
Keeping these arguments in order, it is proposed that there could be several alternate ways of reading the geopolitical and the security concerns of the Himalaya and if the statist meaning (territoriality, sovereignty and difference) is privileged over and above those of the anthropological, historical, cultural, and ecological ones, it would continue to reflect a set of mental processes predicated on a certain conception of spatial imagination that could be anything but ‘unHimalayan’ or, for that matter, antithetical to the very idea of the Himalaya itself. How long should one go on referring to the Himalaya as the one of the largest biodiversity hotspots? Or as the largest water tower of Asia? Or as a zone that is culturally and linguistically diverse, sharing a common historical pool of resources, communities, cultures, civilisations and memories, and susceptible to climate change and ecological vulnerabilities? When would these terms of references be predicated in our scholarly, and, by extension, pedestrian, attempts to understand the Himalaya and produce impactful policy research on the Himalaya?
The argument is simple. The Himalaya being a naturally evolved phenomenon should be understood through frameworks that have grown from within the Himalaya. The Himalaya needs to be visualised with an open eye and taken in as a whole instead of in parts unlike the ancient parable of the efforts of the blind men in trying to understand the elephant in parts. The Himalaya is a space whose history defines its geography rather than the other way round. Since histories are always made rather than given, we need to be careful about what kind of Himalayan history we are trying to inject or project in the way we imagine the Himalaya. Viewing the Himalaya as a space of political power and, by extension, through the coordinates of nation states epitomising differential national histories is a violent choice, which actually enriched ultra-sensitivity towards territorial claims and border management.
A road map of other routes
In contrast to this, if we are ready to consider the Himalaya as a space that is deeply embedded in human subjectivities, we can possibly come out of the grip of a national absolute space, which is actually necessary if we are to address the concerns of trade, commerce, community, ecology and environment — issues which are no less important when we are to think of securing livelihoods, cultures and the environment in the Himalaya. In fact, the road map of all these alternative routes — trade, community, environment — are located beyond the absolutist statist position. The need is that these alternative imaginations of security should be given the required space in the way policy making, state-building strategies and diplomatic relations are worked out in relation to the Himalaya. The time has come when we need to take position between the Himalaya as a national space and as a space of dwelling instead of avoiding our encounter with this ambivalence.
Swatahsiddha Sarkar is Professor and Director, Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, West Bengal
In what has been widely perceived as a gesture of conciliation towards Muslims, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said in a recent speech (https://bit.ly/3j2Oe6t) that Hindus lynching minorities for cow slaughter were acting against Hindutva, and those asserting that Muslims have no place in India were not Hindus. He also tried to allay Muslim fears about the bleak future of Islam in India saying the religion was not in danger, and asked Muslims to help the RSS in making the country a world leader (vishwaguru) on the basis of the fact that all Indians, being the descendants of common ancestors from the last 40,000 years, have the same DNA.
Muslim opinion makers either brushed off Mr. Bhagwat’s remarks as “mere rhetoric” because “RSS leaders often spoke with a forked tongue”, or tried to mollify him by saying that “if there is someone who can initiate perestroika in the RSS, it is Bhagwat” because, “in a gradual manner he has been trying to change the Sangh’s attitude towards Muslims”.
If the untenability of the first viewpoint is based on a dismissive distrust of the RSS, the second amounts to nothing more than complaisant backslapping. Such facile responses, to say the least, exude an attitude that is not conducive to a genuine Hindu-Muslim dialogue the RSS chief hopes to initiate.
To his credit, the RSS chief spoke with an open mind and wanted the mistrust (avishwaas) between Hindus and Muslims to be understood and dispelled in an atmosphere of forthright outspokenness (khari khari baat ko jaisa hai waisa samajna). However, communal unity (ekta) through such a dialogue was possible only if Muslims acknowledge India as their motherland; accept its traditions and culture (parampara, sanskriti), and honour their common ancestors (samaan purvaj).
Mr. Bhagwat virtually rendered these three prerequisites asine quo nonfor establishing one’s Indianness with the condescending summation:baaqi hamaare yahaan sab swatantrata hai(there is freedom for everything else in our land).
This attempt to meld Indianness and Hinduness together is eerily similar to V.D. Savarkar’s credo which defines a Hindu as one who regards the entire subcontinent as his fatherland (pitrubhu); descended of Hindu parents, and considers this land holy (punyabhu). For Savarkar these three conditions signified a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati) and a common culture (sanskriti), respectively, and together they form the foundation on which Hindutva rests.
Several assertions of Mr. Bhagwat reflected this attitude. For instance, his full statement on cow vigilantism wasHindustan Hindu Rashtra hai, gaumata pujya hai;lekinlynchingkarne waale yeh Hindutva ke khilaf jaarahe hain(India is a Hindu nation, the cow is worthy of worship; but the lynchers are going against Hindutva).
He also quoted the RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar as stating that Hindus were wrong in blaming the British and the Muslims for their pitiable state (durwasta) because, despite being the owners (maalik) of their country, and their large numbers, if Hindus could be reduced to such a state then there must be some shortcoming (kami) in them that needs to be addressed.
This, Mr. Bhagwat said, is how the RSS conceptualises the situation and therefore, in its view the minorities are not the reason for the miserable condition of the Hindus in a Hindu country (Hinduon ke desh mein).
Portraiture of India
Had the Muslim commentators listened to Mr. Bhagwat’s 34-minute speech made in Ghaziabad — instead of relying on selective versions of it publicised by the media — they would perhaps have challenged, in the spirit of the candidness he suggested, the portraiture of India as indigenously Hindu with a non-native Muslim population.
Nonetheless, was Mr. Bhagwat trying to say that Muslims, even if they are “our own brethren” (hamaare apne bhai) now, are outsiders?
But he did want the people to know that Islam’s entry into India was aggressive (woh aakramakon se saath aaya), but even so, all those who came to our land are still here coexisting peacefully (hamaare yahaan jojo aaya hai woh aaj bhi maujood hai).
Islam in the subcontinent
Mr. Bhagwat should have known that Islam in the subcontinent predates the forays of invaders such as Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, and Muhammad bin Qasim who captured Sindh and Multan from Raja Dahir around 711 CE. It was around 630 CE that Islamised Arab merchants started arriving in the coastal regions of Konkan-Gujarat and Malabar in continuation of the trade links they had with India from pre-Islamic times. The cordiality of this transactive relationship was such that it resulted in the spread of Islamic culture and religion in India.
Thus, most Indian Muslims today are the descendants of the locals who converted to Islam and, therefore, they have always considered India their motherland and respected it traditions, culture, and diversity. The ultimate proof of this patriotism was demonstrated when they chose India over Pakistan after Partition.
But it would be unfair to expect this loyalism to be rooted in the subliminal recognition of an autochthonous Indian race that magnanimously “accommodated” them. For there is no evidence to show that such a race existed in India, nor are the Muslims aliens.
Researcher Tony Joseph, in his engrossing bookEarly Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came Fromand subsequent articles, has shown that Indians are a multi-source civilisation who draw their cultural impulses, traditions and practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories. He calls the earliest direct ancestors of people living in India today, the ‘First Indians’. They were the descendants of the Out of Africa (OoA) migrants who arrived here about 65,000 years ago. The First Indians were later joined by Zagrosian herders from Iran with whom they formed the Harappan civilisation.
After 2000 BCE came the Aryans, the Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman-language speakers, and, much later, the Greeks, the Jews, the Huns, the Sakas, the Parsis, the Syrians, the Mughals, the Portuguese, the British, the Siddis — all of whom left small marks all over the subcontinent.
In short, says Mr. Joseph, almost all the population groups of India carry 50-65% of their ancestry from the First Indians, no matter where in the caste hierarchy they stand, what language they speak, which region they inhabit or what religion they belong to.
This being the truth, India cannot be spoken of in terms of Hinduonka desh(Hindu country) orMusalmaanon ka desh(Muslim country). It belongs equally to all communities living here, and as pointed out by the RSS chief himself, India being a democracy cannot countenance the dominance of Hindus or Muslims.
Likewise, any Hindu-Muslim dialogue must be unconditional and take place in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. In Mr. Bhagwat’s own words:Darke maare ekta hona nahin hai(Let there not be unity out of fear).
A. Faizur Rahman is the Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Government hopes to ring in fresh changes to the 1961 Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation law in the monsoon session, after the Cabinet nod this week. From savers’ perspective, the most significant modification on the anvil is a 90-day deadline for the Corporation (DICGC) to remit the insured deposits of customers in troubled banks. As per the plan, once the RBI imposes curbs on a bank, the clock will start ticking and by the 91st day or thereabouts, account holders will get their outstanding balance back with a cap of Rs. 5 lakh. While Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said this will not apply retrospectively, she did indicate that this would apply to cases of lenders already under a moratorium. In the last two years, Yes Bank, Lakshmi Vilas Bank and the PMC Bank, have faced such a bar on depositors seeking to withdraw. PMC Bank accounts still face such curbs, even as savings parked in other co-operative lenders that have gone under continue to elude their rightful owners. The Minister said it normally takes eight to 10 years for insured deposits to be forked out, from the time a bank hits a hurdle and myriad conditions are imposed on withdrawals. But these delays were well-known last year too, when the insured deposit amount was raised to Rs. 5 lakh from Rs. 1 lakh laid down in 1993.
Making incremental changes in quick succession suggests a piecemeal approach to governance rather than a system-wide view, even though the government stressed it has been working ‘overtime’ to resolve the PMC Bank crisis. Nevertheless, given the rising distress in households and the downward momentum in savings levels due to the pandemic, this change must be allowed to make it through the din in Parliament. As per RBI data, Rs. 76.21 lakh crore or almost 51% of deposits are now insured, but 98.3% of all accounts have balances of Rs. 5 lakh or less so they are fully insured. This can be a source of renewed comfort for people in the banking system, grappling with bad loans, dwindling deposits and a still-fledgling insolvency framework. It is important for financial stability that people feel it is safer to park their money in a bank than stashing it under a mattress. For several people with limited financial literacy and access to retirement savings instruments, with lifetime earnings (possibly over Rs. 5 lakh) parked in a neighbourhood co-operative bank, this would still be a less than perfect outcome. The RBI needs to up its oversight game, and the Centre, which has recently made the Department of Cooperation a full-scale ministry, needs to allow it to do so. Moreover, just as the latest amendments have an enabling provision to raise the premium paid by banks to the DICGC in future, there should have been one to raise the insured deposit limit in line with inflation and per capita income trends.
The Supreme Court ruling that legislative privilege cannot be extended to provide legal immunity to criminal acts committed by lawmakers ought to be welcomed for two reasons. It lays down that legislators charged with unruly behaviour that results in offences under penal laws cannot be protected either by their privilege or their free speech rights. Second, the decision revivifies the law relating to a prosecutor’s role in withdrawing an ongoing criminal case. The LDF government in Kerala has suffered a setback as it strongly favoured the withdrawal of cases against six members sought to be prosecuted for creating a ruckus in the Assembly on March 13, 2015, when they boisterously tried to interrupt the presentation of the Budget presented by the erstwhile UDF regime. Their action resulted in destruction or damage to some items, amounting to a loss of Rs. 2.20 lakh. Based on the Assembly Secretary’s complaint, the police registered a case and later filed a charge sheet against them for committing mischief and trespass under the IPC and destroying public property under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984. This year, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thiruvananthapuram, had rejected the application by the public prosecutor for withdrawal from prosecution, an order that was later affirmed by the Kerala HC. It is not surprising that the apex court concurred with these decisions, as it is indeed an unacceptable argument that the alleged vandalism took place as part of the legislators’ right to protest on the floor of the House.
Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, who has rejected calls for asking his General Education Minister, V. Sivankutty, one of the accused, to resign and face trial, maintains that the matter ought to have been seen as a political protest and something that should not have been taken into the domain of criminal prosecution. He is indeed right when he says that courts ought not to re-appraise a prosecutor’s decision to withdraw a case, and that they should only examine whether the prosecutor had applied his mind independently. However, there is equal force in the proposition that it is the court’s duty to decide whether the withdrawal is in good faith, is in the interest of public policy, and is not aimed at thwarting the process of law. Legislative privilege and parliamentary free speech are necessary elements of a lawmaker’s freedom to function, but it is difficult to disagree with the Court’s conclusion that an alleged act of destroying public property within the House cannot be considered “essential” for their legislative functions. It is indeed quite legal for Mr. Sivankutty to remain in office, as he is yet to be convicted. However, he will be well-advised to take a cue from several recent precedents of those in ministerial positions stepping down until their names are cleared by due process.
Announcing 27% reservation for OBC and 10% for EWS candidates in the all-India quota for medical admissions, while proportionately increasing overall seats, continues the trend of entrenching reservations. Indeed, it’s surprising this move took so long. Now BJP can claim bragging rights, just like Congress in 2006, when the latter initiated OBC reservations in central education institutions. By upholding EWS quotas too, BJP has theoretically placated most social groups.
Politics of quotas is such that no one will ask even basic questions. How soon will an increase in medical seats to accommodate new quotas happen and what will be the quality of education after that increase? The pandemic should have told the political class that already-existing shortcomings in medical education restrict the output of thoroughly trained doctors. How will putting more stress on this system produce a better outcome? We need many more quality medical institutions to increase the supply of quality medical professionals. But that requires policy that knows how to attract entrepreneurs who value creating institutions and also does rigorous performance reviews of medical colleges. Quota balancing will now be an added job for medical regulators not known for their commitment to excellence.
Indian netas excel in failing at basics and covering them up with populist appeals. They have failed to provide high quality school education or facilitate job creation. Consequently, subpar human capital makes quotas, which involve subdividing a static or shrinking pie, an attractive fallback option. Without economic growth or learning outcomes, OBC groups, sandwiched between the general category and SC/STs, were rallied on the promise of quotas. Now, groups within the OBC quota are clashing over who benefited or lost out, and even the GoI-appointed Rohini Commission is struggling to reconcile claims. Expect more politics on quota and little policy aimed at quality.
After four men posing as policemen raped two minor girls on a Goa beach, CM Pramod Sawant, who also holds the home portfolio, asked parents to introspect on why these young girls were out at night. Sawant later walked back that comment, saying he was misquoted. But there have been far too many such blame-the-victim comments from Indian politicians, including women leaders.
This speaks of a political culture that has mixed patriarchy’s usual tropes – women must restrict their mobility and autonomy – with frightening insensitivity about the crime of rape. How difficult is it to understand that if there is any moment when politicians should absolutely not dole out lectures on parental duties it is when a daughter is a victim of sexual violence.
But it is not just politicians either. Police officials, teachers, men and women in other public offices and even some parents have all asked, after a crime of sexual violence, whether the victim shouldn’t have known better. The assumption here is that sexual violence is inevitable. It is the idea that women have to live in constant vigilance and terror. Men disappear from this narrative altogether. Rape is cast as ‘women’s safety’ not ‘male violence’.
But the pushback is also now fierce. Leaders these days often retract their original comments. A political cost is attached to normalising rape. That cost needs to be much, much higher.
Roberto Calasso, the Italian writer who died on Wednesday aged 80, was a polymath whose books transcended the silos of genres. He was a novelist, mythologist, translator, publisher. His books reflected his esoteric interests: He wrote on Indian and Greek mythology, the Vedic Age, Kafka, Baudelaire and the idea of the modern, among other things. The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka were categorised as fiction though they were more than that. The question, how did it all begin, fascinated him and the search for answers led him to explore cultures and mythologies beyond Europe. Not surprisingly, ancient India fascinated him. Ka and Ardor were Calasso’s meditations on ancient Indian philosophy and the epics — Ka explored the world of Mahabharata while he visited the Vedas in Ardor.
Calasso was shaped by the war years, the anti-fascist politics of his professor father, and the academic culture in his family. He once told The Paris Review that he began writing his memoir after he turned 12; it covered his life between age four and seven. In his early 20s, he joined the publishing industry and rose to head the Italian publishing house, Adelphi. Like his illustrious contemporaries, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, Calasso experimented with form and genre to create a unique body of work that defied classification and redefined the idea of literature. At Adelphi, he curated a publishing line that included the most creative minds of the time.
Calasso knew that to understand the present, we need to know the past, and to be modern was to be familiar with the ancients. At a time when myths and gods seem to have more influence over minds, Calasso’s writings offer clues to engaging with complex political questions.
If it were not disquieting enough that an inter-state boundary dispute has led to the death of six police personnel, that two chief ministers were seen sparring on Twitter having failed to prevent the clash, the Assam government has gone on to issue an astonishing advisory asking residents not to travel to Mizoram and risk “their personal safety”. It also asked people of Assam already living in Mizoram to “exercise utmost caution”. It begs the question: What is the Himanta Biswa Sarma government thinking? How can a state government mark another state in the Indian Union as hostile territory for its people? While the presence of central forces has enforced an uneasy peace on the Lailapur-Vairengte border, all movement of people and vehicles from Assam to Mizoram has ground to a halt, bringing back fears of punishing highway blockades that have crippled Northeastern states in the past. This is just the moment when the political class in both states should go to work, quietly and away from the headlines, on defusing animosity — rather than play the risky game of ratcheting up emotions. Instead, the Assam Chief Minister is on record, promising to deploy 4,000 commandos to “defend” the state’s border with Mizoram; and a Mizoram MP from Chief Minister Zoramthanga’s party has threatened another violent reprisal if the Assam Police intrudes into his state.
This extraordinary breakdown of political maturity is all the more curious because the BJP and its ally are in power in both states. Zoramthanga is a part of the North-East Democratic Alliance, which was founded by Sarma, who is known to have used old relationships with several Northeast leaders for the benefit of his party. Both leaders have the acumen to dial down hostilities; their states stand to gain by stepping back from the brink. The boundary dispute is tangled enough. Nineteenth century colonial history runs through it, complicating claims and counter-claims.
Assam and Mizoram’s experience with insurgency is a reminder not just of their uneasy relationship with the “mainland” but of the cost of allowing violent groups to set the terms of politics. Several fault lines criss-cross within the Northeast as well, resulting in bitter conflicts over land and identity. Like some other states in the Northeast, Mizoram too was carved out as a distinct political entity from Assam. In such a backdrop, provocative statements from the CM of Assam can only harden historical differences. When lives have been lost, the Assam government must not play with fire. It must withdraw its advisory.
When a standing committee is stood up by representatives of three ministries on an issue of public importance that has raised serious questions and concerns, something is not right with parliamentary democracy. More specifically, Wednesday’s failure, evidently synchronised and reportedly last-minute, of officials of the ministries of electronics and information technology, home affairs and department of telecommunication, to attend a meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on information technology on the BJP-led government at the Centre is avoiding the subject and disrespecting the process of Parliament. Ever since the revelations broke out, of Israeli spyware being used to mount surveillance against potential targets among politicians, activists, dissidents and others, parties of the Opposition have been rightly asking that the government discuss the issue in both Houses. The French government has raised the issue with Israel; NSO, the company that developed the spyware, is under scrutiny. Yet here, the government has turned a deaf ear to those asking questions, calling them disruptors and obstructionists. The no-show by ministries’ officials has taken this obduracy to a worrying new low.
It is one thing to stonewall questions raised by political opponents. And quite another to shut the door on the committee process, which is, by design, closed-door and less adversarial, and which functions as a bridge between the people and the legislature, apart from being an essential part of the intricate mosaic of checks and balances in a parliamentary democracy. The committees assist Parliament in its functions of deliberation, discussion and oversight. They provide a forum where members can engage with domain experts and other stakeholders apart from government officials, on complex matters, deepening the scrutiny and widening the inputs in the lawmaking process. The reasons, on paper, that have been given by officials of the three ministries for not appearing before the parliamentary committee on Wednesday, after confirming their participation earlier, are different — in the current context, they are also irrelevant. Because their failure to attend only confirms the disquieting sense that a government with a large majority is intent on having its way through the by-passing of institutions.
On crucial matters ranging from the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir to the three farm laws that sparked farmers’ protests that are still ongoing, the BJP-led government has been seen to sideline Parliament. The weaponisation of the mandate and the winner-takes-all approach of the Narendra Modi government is unprecedented in many ways. The government must realise that this is taking a larger toll. A matter as serious as the Pegasus revelations must find its way into the House. In its bid to short-circuit Parliament just because it can, the government, as during last week’s raids on Dainik Bhaskar, looks imperious — and insecure.
The Centre has sought the opinion of the Election Commission on holding mid-term elections in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Although the elections to these states are due only in early 1983, they are likely to go to the polls a year ahead of the schedule along with Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal. The issue of clubbing these two states along with the three where elections are scheduled for February next year has been under discussion in Congress (I) circles since early June. The Election Commission had earlier asked the electoral officers in these states on their electoral preparedness. Reports from the states indicate that they would be ready to hold elections the end of this year.
Laldenga PM meet
The Centre and the Mizo National Front have almost reached an agreement on the Mizo issue and the process of finalising the settlement is being speeded up. This was the impression given by the MNF leader Laldenga after his meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Both sides were happy to note that the ceasefire agreement between the two sides has held for almost a year.
Tarapur fuel talks
Senior officials of India and the US have begun talks amidst faint hopes that they will be able to resolve their differences over the supply of US fuel to the Tarapur Atomic Power station. There is some possibility that the two countries might decide on another round of talks in the next few weeks.
Iran quake toll
The death toll in the earthquake that struck Iran on July 28 has risen to more than 1,200, Tehran radio reported. The UN has, however, put the toll at 8,000.
How do democracies die?
The old question has a new urgency because global surveys are everywhere reporting dipping confidence in democracy and marked jumps in citizens’ frustrations with government corruption and incompetence. Young people are the least satisfied with democracy — much more disaffected than previous generations at the same age. Most worrying are the survey findings for India, which is fast developing a reputation as the world’s largest failing democracy. In its Democracy Report 2020, Sweden’s V-Dem Institute noted that India “has almost lost its status as a democracy”. It ranked India below Sierra Leone, Guatemala and Hungary.
Things are serious. Not since the 1920s and 1930s has democracy faced so much trouble. That period saw the destruction of most parliamentary democracies. Only 11 survived. Since then, political scientists have pointed out, democracies have wilted in two connected ways. Some have suffered sudden death, in puffs of smoke and rat-a-tat gunfire. But death by cuts is more common.
Democide is usually a slow-motion and messy process. Wild rumours and talk of conspiracies flourish. Street protests and outbreaks of uncontrolled violence happen. Fears of civil unrest spread. The armed forces grow agitated. Emergency rule is declared but things eventually come to the boil. As the government totters, the army moves from its barracks onto the streets to quell unrest and take control. Democracy is finally buried in a grave it slowly dug for itself. As the government totters, the army moves from its barracks onto the streets to quell unrest and take control.
During the past generation, around three-quarters of democracies met their end in these ways. The military coup d’états against the elected governments of Egypt (2013), Thailand (2014), Myanmar and Tunisia (2021) are obvious examples.
Less obvious is the way democracies are destroyed by social emergencies. Think of things this way: Democracy is much more than pressing a button or marking a box on a ballot paper. It goes beyond the mathematical certitude of election results and majority rule. It’s not reducible to lawful rule through independent courts or attending local public meetings and watching breaking news stories scrawled across a screen. Democracy is a whole way of life.
It is freedom from hunger, humiliation and violence. Democracy is public disgust for callous employers who mistreat workers paid a pittance for unblocking stinking sewers and scraping s**t from latrines. Democracy is saying no to every form of human and non-human indignity. It is respect for women, tenderness with children, and access to jobs that bring satisfaction and sufficient reward to live comfortably.
In a healthy democracy, citizens are not forced to travel in buses and trains like livestock, wade through dirty water from overrunning sewers, or breathe poisonous air. Democracy is public and private respect for different ways of living. It is humility: The willingness to admit that impermanence renders all life vulnerable, that in the end nobody is invincible, and that ordinary lives are never ordinary. Democracy is equal access to decent medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. It’s the rejection of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re “naturally” fixed in stone. Democracy is thus insubordination: The refusal to put up with everyday forms of snobbery and toad-eating, idolatry and lying, bulls**t and bullying.
Fine principles, you may say, but what happens to a democracy when successive governments allow their social footings to be damaged, or destroyed? The shortest answer: Democracy suffers a slow-motion social death.
Especially when a constitution promises its citizens justice, liberty and equality, the splintering and shattering of social life induce a sense of legal powerlessness among citizens. The judiciary becomes vulnerable to cynicism, political meddling and state capture. Massive imbalances of wealth, chronic violence, famine and unevenly distributed life chances also make a mockery of the ethical principle that in a democracy people can live as citizen partners of equal social worth. If democracy is the self-government of social equals who freely choose their representatives, then large-scale social suffering renders the democratic principle utterly utopian. Or it turns into a grotesque farce.
Domestic violence, rotten health care, widespread feelings of social unhappiness, and daily shortages of food and housing destroy people’s dignity. Indignity is a form of generalised social violence. It kills the spirit and substance of democracy. When famished children cry themselves to sleep at night, when millions of women feel unsafe and multitudes of migrant workers living on slave wages are forced to flee for their lives in a medical emergency, the victims are unlikely to believe themselves worthy of rights, or capable as citizens of fighting for their own entitlements, or for the rights of others. Ground down by social indignity, the powerless are robbed of self-esteem.
No doubt, citizens’ ability to strike back, to deliver millions of mutinies against the rich and powerful, is in principle never to be underestimated in a democracy. But the brute fact is social indignity undermines citizens’ capacity to take an active interest in public affairs, and to check and humble and wallop the powerful. Citizens are forced to put up with state and corporate restrictions on basic public freedoms. They must get used to big money, surveillance, baton charges, preventive detentions, and police killings.
But the scandal doesn’t end there. For when millions of citizens are daily victimised by social indignities, the powerful are granted a licence to rule arbitrarily. Millions of humiliated people become sitting targets. Some at the bottom and many in the middle and upper classes turn their backs on public affairs. They bellyache in unison against politicians and politics. But the disaffected do nothing. Complacency and cynical indifference breed voluntary servitude. Or the disgruntled begin to yearn for political redeemers and steel-fisted government. The powerless and the privileged join hands to wish for a messiah who promises to defend the poor, protect the rich, drive out the demons of corruption and disorder, and purify the soul of “the people”.
When this happens, demagoguery comes into season. Citizen disempowerment encourages boasting and bluster among powerful leaders who stop caring about the niceties of public integrity and power-sharing. They grow convinced they can turn lead into gold. But their hubris has costs. When democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable by a society weakened by poor health, low morale, and joblessness, demagogues are prone to blindness and ineptitude. They make careless, foolish, and incompetent decisions that reinforce social inequities. They license big market and government players — poligarchs — to decide things. Those who exercise power in government ministries, corporations, and public/private projects aren’t subject to democratic rules of public accountability. Like weeds in an untended garden, corruption flourishes. Almost everybody must pay bribes to access basic public services. The powerful stop caring about the niceties of public integrity. Institutional democracy failure happens.
Finally, in the absence of redistributive public welfare policies that guarantee sufficient food, shelter, security, education, and health care to the downtrodden, democracy morphs into a mere façade. Elections still happen and there’s abundant talk of “the people”. But democracy begins to resemble a fancy mask worn by wealthy political predators. Self-government is killed. Strong-armed rule by rich and powerful poligarchs in the name of “the people” follows. Cheer-led by lapdog media, phantom democracy becomes a reality. Society is subordinated to the state. People are expected to behave as loyal subjects, or else suffer the consequences. A thoroughly 21st century type of top-down rule called despotism triumphs.
Might this be how democracy dies in India?
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2021 under the title ‘Phantom democracy’. John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin). He is the co-author (with Debasish Roy Chowdhury) of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism (Oxford University Press, 2021)
I know Rakesh Asthana, a competent police officer of the Gujarat cadre and I also know many officers of the AGMUT cadre of equal, if not greater, calibre. Asthana’s appointment as the Commissioner of Police, Delhi, took me and many others by surprise, especially as he had less than a week left to retire.
During various national and state-level conferences, we as police officers have discussed the Supreme Court-mandated police reforms of 2006. We have talked of the damage that politicians have done to civil services, including to the police, by encouraging a crony culture. We have welcomed the Court’s directions about the formation of Establishment Boards in the states and the involvement of the UPSC in selecting state police chiefs. We have also welcomed “fixed tenures” for officers who are otherwise at the mercy of local political leaders for postings, transfers and continuation. And yet we, the retired and in-service police officers, are quiet today.
The central government has shown scant respect to either the Supreme Court or to the police as an institution. In one stroke, through the recent posting of the Delhi police chief, the politicians have displayed the ruthless power with which they control civil services. The message of them being the “masters” is loud and clear.
The Commissioner of Police of any city is the leader of the police force and well acquainted with his/her officers. How will an officer, having worked in a particular cadre for 35 years, understand the ethos and culture of another state police cadre during the last year of his service? How will he deal with officers and constabulary he knows nothing about or encourage them to put in their best? Can it be denied that many within the force would consider him an “outsider” and that many, having worked with other potential contenders to the post, will not resent the one “forced upon” them? They see no imminent crisis in Delhi for the handling of which the new Commissioner has special expertise and was thus inducted overnight. Nor is there any dearth of competent officers in the Delhi police, if the need so arises.
We all know that it takes years to build institutions and only days to demolish them. In their greed for power, politicians in India have ruined the civil services. When I talked to a former Commissioner of Police, Delhi, he very cynically replied that five times in the past, an outsider has been thrust upon the Delhi police. It is therefore not just the current government but even the Congress party, which is protesting today, that is equally guilty.
The uniform does not let one speak up while in service. The same is the case with non-uniformed civil services, as they too are bound by the service conduct rules. It is the responsibility of either civil society or retired civil servants to keep a keen watch and check on the callous exploitation of power by politicians. Retirees have recently been threatened with stoppage of their pension, civil society is being hounded by various enforcement authorities. But what has happened to the Indian Police Service today is bound to occur to other civil services tomorrow, maybe even to the judiciary and various wings of the armed forces. This is a systematic assault on institutions by power-hungry politicians.
Martin Niemöller’s words cannot be erased from history: “Then they came for me/ And there was no one left/ To speak out for me”
A blatant and unashamed attempt has been made to damage an organisation, the Delhi Police. In a democracy, each institution has a particular role to play and a fine balance must be maintained. In this case, the politicians have clearly over-stepped and encroached upon the independence of the police and the sagacity of the judiciary. They have violated the clear directions of the highest court in the country and done so not for the welfare of citizens, but to show their brutal power. Therefore silence, my friends, is not an option.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2021 under the title ‘An uncivil message’. The writer, a former Commissioner of Police, Pune, retired as DG Bureau of Police Research & Development
Chief Justice of India N V Ramana has ignited a passionate debate during a preliminary hearing concerning whether “sedition” should be an offence at all, and how to prevent its misuse or abuse, were it to remain. The Supreme Court has a bouquet of petitions — filed by Major General (retired) S G Vombatkere, the Editors Guild of India and others — all arguing, in effect, that the meandering meanings of expressions such as “disaffection” towards the government, “hatred”, “contempt” etc. constitute an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and cause constitutionally impermissible “chilling effect” on speech. These meandering meanings are further exacerbated by harsh provisions that make seditious conduct both “cognisable” and “non-bailable” and punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
CJI Ramana in preliminary hearings has pointedly asked the Attorney General whether “sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is still required after 75 years of independence from colonial rule”. Referring to the offence being used by “the British to suppress the freedom” of legendary figures like “Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak” (trials well covered by advocate Chitranshul Sinha in his 2019 work marking the 150th anniversary of the “sedition” law in India) and wondering aloud whether this law is still needed, the CJI said “the enormous power of this section can be compared to a carpenter being given a saw to make an item, uses it to cut the entire forest instead of a tree”.
The CJI was not too far from echoing Jawaharlal Nehru ’s early views that the offence is “highly objectionable and obnoxious” and declared that the “sooner we get rid of it the better.” But he did not; and neither did the SC or the constitutional courts, save the 1958 Allahabad High Court opinion in Ram Nandan,which voided Section 124-A of the IPC.
Kedar Nath (1962) did not go this far but the SC held that it was “reasonably clear” that the IPC punishes only “such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence”. Put differently, “disloyalty to a government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of the government, or its agencies”. It is entirely constitutional if the intention is to “ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means”; an offence is committed, however, if the intention is to excite “those feelings of enmity and disloyalty”, which tend to imply “excitement to public disorder or the use of violence”.
Already, some law luminaries have found new stirrings of hope in the Supreme Court, while some others have insisted that we must not void the section but rather, as the learned attorney general observed, find constitutional ways and practical means to prevent the abuse and misuse of law. Obviously, a most immediate step is to forbid rampant private complaints by citizens and authorise only very senior police officials to take appropriate action. We do not know what further arguments will be made and what the SC may eventually decide; but one hopes that the die is cast for a sedition-less Indian future.
We know a few building blocks for a future action that will combat what originated in colonial times. Is the situation then of (in Frantz Fanon’s terms) “black skins, white masks” or of colonial origins, and postcolonial misuse? The policy question is simple: Is the mighty sovereign Indian Republic so vulnerable to public and media criticism as to require the continuation of a colonial and repressive law? Directing the Government of India Press, on the pain of sanction, not to publish the voided sections of the law, or provisions which are read down, may be a necessary first step, but the real problem is to make political executive and law enforcement officials take most seriously the judicial directions reading down the criminal statutes. They should also learn, under judicial tutelage, to respect considered obiter dicta of the Court which are binding on all. Non-compliance with the law declared by the Supreme Court is fraught with momentous political and constitutional crises. Faced with this prospect, wisdom lies in the judicial repeal of Section 124-A. The foundational maxim that the mere possibility of abuse is no ground for the denial of power may only remain in place if the SC adopts the path of denying constitutional validity to the offence of “sedition”. Equally pertinent to judicial discourse from now on is the focus on the fact that neither the framers of the Constitution nor the authors of the amended Article 19(2) included “sedition” as a ground for “reasonable restriction” to freedom of speech and expression. Any creation of “public disorder” or “disturbance of public tranquility” is already upheld as a reasonable restriction in other draconian collective security laws in the State’s arsenal, though even these would not justify uses of criminal law outside its stated purposes. Democratic legality thrives on the axiom that powers given by the law must be exercised for the purpose for which it is given and for no other.
It is high time to realise that the law of “sedition” must go, even when it may strictly not even exist! That word occurs only once in the marginal note to the section, but the legislative text talks about acts like “disaffection”, “disloyalty”, “contempt” or “hatred”, which frontally menace free speech and expression. Such a note may be used to aid the construction of the section, but the offence of “sedition” does not actually exist. And what now needs to be judicially repealed wholly is Section 124-A at the bar of the fundamental human right to free speech. What Gandhiji said — the law may not be used to “manufacture affection” under pain of a penal sanction — was as true then as it remains now.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2021 under the title ‘A sedition-less future’. The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice chancellor of the Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi
With the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) staying the approval granted by the Mumbai bench of the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) to the resolution plan for the Videocon Group, the saga of India’s first group insolvency proceeding continues.
On June 8, the NCLT approved a resolution plan submitted by Twinstar Technologies, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Vedanta Group . Twinstar’s resolution plan provided for payment of Rs 2,962 crore — a mere 4.15 per cent of Videocon’s total admitted debt of Rs 64,838 crore — raising several concerns, from confidentiality obligations of the resolution professional to the rights of dissenting creditors. The NCLT, despite being constrained to approve and not interfere with the “commercial wisdom” of the Committee of Creditors (CoC), expressed its displeasure with the resolution process.
The displeasure is justifiable. Under the IBC (Section 30(2)(b)), the resolution plan must provide for payment of debts amongst creditors in a “fair and equitable” manner. In the plan submitted by Twinstar, unsecured assenting financial creditors and operational creditors are getting a paltry 0.62 per cent and 0.72 per cent of their admitted dues. Majority of the operational creditors are MSMEs. The NCLT, even while approving the plan, requested Twinstar to increase its payout to the ailing MSMEs, who were themselves on the cusp of insolvency. Even the secured assenting and dissenting financial creditors had to settle for only 4.9 per cent and 4.56 per cent of their respective dues. Considering that lending by financial creditors entails public money, the concern over whether such resolutions are in line with the public policy of the country must not be overlooked. If an award passed in arbitration, where no public money is involved, can be set aside if it is contrary to the public policy of India, then why can’t the same yardstick be made applicable to resolution plans? After all, the banks are repositories of public trust and money.
What is more startling than the 95.85 per cent haircut taken by the creditors is that Twinstar’s bid of Rs 2,962 crore is uncannily close to the liquidation value of the Videocon Group estimated at Rs 2,568 crore, thereby raising legitimate suspicion and concern over the confidentiality of the resolution process. Regulations 35(2) and 35(3) of the I&B (Insolvency Resolution of Corporate Persons) Regulations, 2016 state that the resolution professional must maintain the confidentiality of the fair market value and liquidation value of the corporate debtor and can only disclose the same to the CoC members after the resolutions plan have been submitted. Whilst the CoC members must, on receipt of the information, issue an undertaking of confidentiality, no such obligation falls on the resolution professional. Further, Section 29(2) of the code provides that the resolution professional must disclose all “relevant information” to the resolution applicant and it is for the resolution applicant to ensure compliance with confidentiality obligations. Again, there is no such duty imposed on the resolution professional.
Even under Section 25 of the code, titled “Duties of resolution professional”, the specific duty to maintain confidentiality of sensitive information that is likely to affect the valuation of the corporate debtor is conspicuously absent. Clearly, the confidentiality rules need to be revisited, especially qua the resolution professional. The current regime does not have much deterrence value so as to ensure solemn adherence to confidentiality.
It would not be an over-reach to suggest that it is largely due to these striking findings of the NCLT that the NCLAT was compelled to stay the takeover bid. Status-quo ante has been restored until the next date of hearing by which time more than three years would have passed since the Videocon group was admitted into insolvency proceedings. This is way beyond the statutory timeline of 330 days. In case the plan is sent back to the CoC for reconsideration, it may be quite a while before curtains are finally drawn on this case. If we factor in the likely prospect of this matter reaching the Supreme Court, the wait might just get longer.
The two primary objectives of enacting the IBC were: The conclusion of the insolvency resolution process in a “time-bound manner”, and “maximisation of value of assets” of the corporate debtor. Videocon was one of the first test cases to examine the prospects of insolvency jurisprudence in India and the first one, for group insolvency proceedings. It was in the second list of the 26 defaulter companies referred for insolvency resolution proceedings by the RBI. However, almost four years and a 95 per cent haircut later, the call for an immediate course correction couldn’t be louder.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2021 under the title ‘Hold-up on exit route’. The writer, a lawyer, is partner at Numen Law Offices
Travel has been badly hit due to the pandemic and the consequent restrictions on cross-border movement across the world. There has been a decline of 42-47 per cent in the world’s total passengers in 2021 compared to 2019. For India, while the number of passengers travelling by air picked up after the first wave, it fell drastically when the second wave hit. For June 2021, the average daily departures were at 1,100, higher than 700 in June 2020, but still significantly lower than 2,000 in April 2021.
Travel becomes an important medium for trade in services, especially where consumers or firms make use of a service in another country. It is, therefore, necessary to revive travel and to provide conducive and safe conditions for it.
The introduction of Covid-19 vaccines has opened up opportunities to help revive travel. However, it is important to carefully design policies that help revive travel demand. In a recent guideline, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended its member states do not seek proof of Covid-19 vaccination or recovery as a mandatory condition for entry to or exit from a country. As per the agency, vaccinated people can be exempted from testing and quarantine requirements. In this direction, many countries like China and Israel have introduced vaccine certificates that ease the process of entering and travelling across the destination country for vaccinated travellers.
Though these certificates can be looked at from the lens of trade facilitation, they can potentially act as a trade barrier if they encourage discriminatory treatment. The recent and the most contentious issue in this regard is the European Union’s “Green Pass” scheme. Through this vaccine certificate, the European Commission intends to remove travel restrictions such as entry bans, quarantine obligations and testing. The EU has listed only four vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for the pass: Pfizer-BioNTech’s Comirnaty, Moderna’s Spikevax, Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaxzevria and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen.
This approach creates a schism between low and high-income countries and the first source of this divide stems from the difference in the vaccination rates across the globe. Vaccine doses administered per 100 people is 1.4 for low-income countries as compared to 93.2 for high-income countries. This makes travellers from low-income countries ineligible to avail these certificates.
The second source of discrimination is based on the type of vaccines administered in a country. As the Green Pass scheme includes only four selected vaccines approved by the EMA, it makes travellers from countries administering alternate vaccines ineligible for certification. When it was launched, the policy did not even allow AstraZeneca’s Indian-manufactured vaccine, Covishield. Due to the immense pushback, 16 EU countries have now accepted Covishield. However, despite this inclusion, travel rules vary across the region and in some cases, are still discriminatory — for instance, travellers from India vaccinated with Covishield still need to quarantine in the Netherlands, as India is considered a high-risk country. The only relief for them is the removal of any possible restriction on their movement within the destination country.
This goes against the policy of COVAX, which has categorically stated that “any measure that only allows people protected by a subset of WHO-approved vaccines to benefit from the re-opening of travel into and with that region would effectively create a two-tier system… (and) would negatively impact the growth of economies that are already suffering the most”.
As per estimates based on information from the WHO, countries not administering any of the EMA-approved vaccines account for at least 14 per cent of the vaccinated population. These lie mostly in low and middle-income countries, including India.Along with African and South Asian regions, this population also includes South East Asian countries. Nationals from many of these countries also serve in the hospitality industries in countries across the world, including Europe. With this exclusion criteria, an indirect cost burden is put on their domestic service sectors that are already reeling due to the pandemic.
With such discriminatory intervention, the EU policy does not go well with the globalisation policy of collective welfare. To achieve the desired goal, countries need to cooperate on vaccine production to accelerate the global vaccination process. The Covid vaccine supply chain can involve more than 100 components and it is important to strengthen the global supply chain. This makes lifting trade barriers on raw materials for vaccine production critical.
There is some policy movement in this direction. Covid vaccine makers across the world have created a platform, led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to connect with key raw material suppliers needed for boosting production. Also, in a recent declaration, WTO members have agreed to review and eliminate unnecessary existing export restrictions on essential medical goods needed to combat the pandemic. The two relevant bodies, WHO and WTO, should also work together to sort out such selective criteria for international movement.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2021 under the title ‘Grounded by bias’. The writer is an Associate Fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Views are personal