Mysterious India

On the Republic Day, every Indian vows to builds his or her motherland firmly and fastly. While looking for ways and means for the mission, the most important agenda is to find out the current maladies. Unfortunately the maladies are many and the route for implementation is impossible. One step up and ten steps down is the day to day Indian move. It is not a country where everything is horrible and great. Half problematic and half promising nation. When can India minimises its minus and maximises its plus?


Shiv Viswanathan writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 26 January 2011


India is a strange country. We seem to be quarrelling all the time. We identify ourselves by the dislike we feel for other or smugness with which we say “we are not them”. Our identity is composed of divisions, of the memories of Partition, of linguistic re-ordering, of the populism of small states. Our national game is neither hockey nor cricket but factionalism. It adds to the perpetual instability of our system. Yet, long-range watchers studying this chaos wonder if our dividedness hides the logic of a different order. Is there a gene that prevents us from falling apart even as we quarrel with each other? What is the secret of unity which works beyond the magic of even Fevicol advertisements?

To say India is tied by identity and consensus would be naïve. Our differences are blatant. Yet in a way we are tied by our differences. Oddly, it is the logic of our difference that keeps us together. India is a country with the courage of its confusions.

Difference allows for varieties of behaviour. It allows for an interaction in the public domain but restricts communal ties or familial interaction. It is a different kind of wisdom, a different grammar.

We are a country of segmentary minds. Each segment is opposed to the other segment and the two segments confront together a third entity at a higher level. Checks and balances operate according to levels. Nukkad can fight nukkad but combine at a different level. Violence gets contained at the next level of unity. Beyond segmentariness, there is syncretism. Here difference is acknowledged and differences combine to reflect opposites. Sufism could combine Hindu/Muslim tenors, Sikhism, Hindu/Islam. Syrian Christianity uses the Hindu to sustain the Christian core. There is a transference taking place over time, where sharing is always possible over difference. It is almost as if taboos created around difference allow for playful reciprocities. Thirdly, difference in India does not always operate across hard territorialities. Boundaries are porous and choices do not have to be polarised. The People of India survey states that there are 300 communities in India that cannot be classified as primarily Muslim or Hindu. Our identities thrive on cross-connections.

There is a standard narrative of divisiveness that is invoked in every squabble. Indians love factionalism and factionalism seems to provide the dynamic of everyday power. There is the old adage that the English conquered us through a policy of divide and rule. But remember, Indian society like many other segmentary systems is easy to defeat but hard to conquer. In fact we expect the coloniser to be like us, settle down like one more caste and slowly merge into the system. Our news is all about squabbles. Party politics operates as factional politics. Everyone needs some one to differ with in order to be himself.

The Indian idea of unity is based on “I differ from you, therefore I am”, “I contradict myself, therefore I continue to be”. We are a society that believes that logic of some against others is better than the logic of all against one. We allow differences to create multiplicities rather than resort to extermism. Our self as a collection of contestations allows for tolerance and unity.

There are exceptions to the rule. The riots in 2002 in Gujarat are one example. Usually after a riot, there is a plethora of stories of how families of one ethnic group protected another. Stories of friendship, ethics, hospitability, solidarity create a compensatory universe which facilitates a return to normality. With Gujarat, one heard the language of exterminism, of wanting to eliminate a minority. Thankfully such a framework has not extended to other states. However, Kashmir was an example of a similar ruthlessness in another form as the Kashmiri pandits were driven from their homes to become refugees in their own land.

But the glue is not just structural idea of crosscutting differences. Accompanying this architectonic is the gum of folklore, the epidemic of dialects, the grammar of diversity. This unity exists in two forms. Firstly, it is civilisational, articulated as a sacred complex of spaces. The second is national. There is a sense that the flag and the constitution keep us together, providing a frame to negotiate differences. At a level of folklore, there is the cosmopolitanism of the common man, proud of our cultural hospitality, carrying with him a sense that India is a compost heap of differences. We constantly invent versions of unity from Vande Mataram, Jana gana mana to the unity songs of Bollywood from Raj Kapoor’s Mera Joota hai Japani and Made in India. There is a sanitised unity that creates sentiments of togetherness. Our myths always have places for the alien, the stranger, the marginal, the dwarf, and no matter how history sanitises myth, our minds carry the legends of hospitality and syncretism, making us cosmopolitan despite ourselves. We might quarrel with the local Bengali, but happily invite a million Bangladeshis to feel at home. The Tibetan senses our hospitality and Tibetans in turn add to our celebration of difference.

Bollywood captures the mindset of the difference. Bollywood, especially Bombay Talkies, was a miniature answer to the Partition, to the difference between Hindu and Muslim and their creative collaboration across differences. Bollywood has maintained that mindset, even sentimentally forging alliances between Hindu and Muslim at the moment of maximum collective rage. Only one other institution can match that sense of difference and unity — the Army. The Indian Army recognises the ethnicity of battalions — Jat, Sikh, Rajput, Gorkha and Maratha. Each has its own tradition and yet each adds to the collective unity of the Army. Bollywood and the Army are the stuff of legends and folklore. As institutions they provide the imaginative glue of a quarrelsome society proud of its diversity yet convinced there are logics beyond uniformity and homogeneity.

As long as our myths, our memories and our folklore rule the grammar of our lives, history can be as quarrelsome as it wants. If myths are elaborations of contradictions, our democracy is a resolution of the myth of difference.



The Pain of Onions

Onions are not ordinary eating stuff. It can create or destroy political parties power holding. Historically onions have played a pivotal role in the political makeup and governance structure of India. In 2011 too onions will play its role fully well to the sadness of ruling coalition.


Manreet Sodhi writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 21st January 2011


In 16th century India a cook in the kitchen of the Mughal emperor Akbar accidentally added two portions of onion to a dish which went on to become a great hit. Thus was born dopiaza, literally onion twice over, a dish cooked in onion sauce that remains immensely popular to this day and has been successfully transplanted to Britain as well.

Except, if you wanted to cook it in India today, you might once again wish to seek royal patronage (or settle for a recipe that required no onion). With the vegetable selling at `85 (about $2) a kilo, up from `10 six months back, the staple of the average Indian household has gone extortionate.

The onion is rather ubiquitous in Indian food. Roughly chopped, it is an essential accompaniment to the sparse meal of the poor, while its braised, pureed, sauteed and garnished avatars surface in the meals of all others.

Muthi piaz — onion smashed with a fist — is de rigueur at roadside eateries throughout the country, and sirkawala piaz — onions in vinegar — are as essential to any table as salt and pepper.

So integral is the onion to the Indian way of life that it has its own mythology. Ayurveda, traditional medicine native to India, claims onion is diuretic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and anti-pigmentationary. Highly regarded as an aphrodisiac in ancient India, it was banned to Hindu widows.

In the sizzling heat of the subcontinent, the onion is called upon for its cooling properties. This was brought to me forcefully when I began my sales training in the plains of Central India in summer when the average day temperature is 45 degree centigrade, fuelled by a hot tropical wind called Loo. Since my work required me to visit 40 grocery stores in one day, I was advised to keep an onion with me, preferably on my person, or in my sales satchel.

By way of explanation, my supervisor showed me his bag, where an onion sat shrivelling in one corner. He made his point further by requesting a labourer to allow me a peek at the folds of his turban — sure enough, tucked within was a red onion.

Legends have grown around the pungent bulb. Shivaji, the fearsome Maratha warrior who took on the might of the Mughals, was reputed to eat a lean diet of unleavened bread with raw onions, as opposed to the effete Mughals, who gorged on twice-cooked onion dishes.

To add to the woes of the Mughals, a holy man, Baba Buddha, when served a simple meal by the wife of a Sikh guru, smashed the onion and predicted that her son would one day similarly crush the tyranny of the empire. Obviously, the humble vegetable is an underdog’s ally.

For the runaway price of onions today, the government has blamed heavy unseasonal rains, but poor agricultural productivity, lack of adequate infrastructure for storage and transport, and deficient government investment are equally to blame.

So what is the average Indian to do? Use cabbage and radish as substitute. And protest. Effigies of the agriculture minister have been burnt. Opposition leaders adorned with onion garlands have held rallies.

A novel protest had Santa Claus handing out onions on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, enterprising businessmen are giving free onions with the purchase of televisions, cars, motorcycles and tires.

Rising onion prices have historically felled governments. In 1980, Indira Gandhi ousted the ruling government by appearing at election rallies with strings of onions. The message was clear: If you can’t manage the price of onions, how do you manage the country? A recent poll showed that the Congress Party would lose its parliamentary majority were an election to be held now.

The government is scrambling to bring the price of onions down. It has banned export of onions, turned to Pakistan for imports, and the prime minister has held cabinet meetings on the issue. Pakistan complied briefly before turning hostile, and now India is threatening in turn to halt cement exports.

It was always understood that you could knock next door for a bowl of sugar, some salt, an onion. With the current price of the vegetable, that would be akin to asking the neighbour for their family jewels. No wonder Pakistan is not responding.

We need to keep the peace in our neighbourhoods. In the interest of social cohesiveness, and its own survival, the government needs to fix the onion price pronto.


Unchangeable India

It happens only in India, says an advertisement. All good and bad things keep moving the mighty civilization called India. Common people’s confidence to survive under any circumstances is the real force behind the marching India. Political representatives, bureaucrats, media and other vital organs of the Indian society are the disappointing figures in the upward trajectory of the nation. Sadly these forces cannot be changed or removed. The tragedy of India continues to haunt the bottom of the national pyramid. Ironically the top of the pyramid exploits the bottom by brining in the sufferings again and again. As long as poverty is there politics will be there. It is a mutual survival policy.

Dr.P.C.Alexander writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 5 January 2011



As we enter the second decade of the 21st century the issue that dominated the political debate of the late 1940s — the system of government best suited for India — is being raised again in certain intellectual circles.

The main problem before the framers of the Constitution was how to devise a Constitution best suited for both stability and accountability and also one which would help lift the vast masses of people stuck in ignorance, illiteracy, ill-health and poverty as a result of a century-and-a-half of colonial exploitation.

B.R. Ambedkar had explained to the members of the Constituent Assembly that they had two options before them: One, the presidential form of democracy as prevalent in the US, and the other the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy as prevalent in Britain.

The Constituent Assembly came to the conclusion that the Westminster model was the best suited for effectively tackling the problem of underdevelopment and at the same time providing for accountability and gave us the present Constitution, which in spite of a 100 amendments retains its basic features without any change. Let us examine how far the objectives of the founding fathers of our republic have been fulfilled under this Constitution.

While assessing the progress made in poverty eradication we have to acknowledge the fact that the lot of the poor today is much better than what it was at the time we achieved Independence. But what should cause serious concern is the fact that a large number of people still live in abject poverty in India, though the country has emerged as one of the top economic powers of the world.

What has gone wrong is not in production of wealth, but in distribution and in ensuring that all those who create wealth pay the taxes due to the government. Quite a good part of the wealth created has flown to tax havens in foreign countries and successive governments at the Centre have failed to plug such leakages.

According to a Swiss bank report of 2006, India topped the list of depositors of wealth in banks in Switzerland to the extent of $1,456 billion compared with Russia’s $470 billion, UK’s $390 billion, Ukraine’s $100 billion and China’s $96 billion. Deposits of Indians are thus more than the deposits of all the other countries, and this shows the extent of wealth owned by Indians, but which has escaped taxation. Many Indians have earned the distinction of being billionaires, but unfortunately India has not produced a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, who have made big money in a honest way and are spending the bulk of their wealth on deserving charities in countries all over the world, including India.

We have to admit with shame that hunger is still a major problem in our country and a large number of people in different parts of the country — both urban and rural — die of malnutrition and hunger.

According to the Global Hunger Index published by the Washington-based International Food Policy and Research Institute, India ranks 66 among 88 countries with 23.7 points on a 100 point scale. (Zero is the best score, indicating no hunger while 100 is the worst.) India’s Constitution and the laws made under it have never stood in the way of coming to the help of such people, but poor enforcement by the government has resulted in continued misery for such people.

On the criterion of education, fairly good progress has been made after Independence but the situation remains dismal because of the inadequacies of these institutions in both quantity and quality.

The condition of public health facilities, particularly in rural areas, is as bad as that of educational facilities in these areas.

The size of the population in 2,86,469 villages is less than 500 each and in 1,45,180 villages it is between 500 and 1,000 each out of a total number of 6,22,621 villages in India. There are serious problems in setting up proper health and educational institutions in such very small villages and the government has so far failed to devise suitable techniques to solve them. Instead, the government follows the traditional practice of establishing health clinics and primary schools in a few villages and appointing teachers or doctors for such places.

Now let us turn to the quality of the institutions of democracy in India. Whenever we speak of India’s achievements we pat ourselves on the back by claiming that we are one of the successful democracies. No doubt, compared with most other such newly-independent countries in Asia and Africa, we can legitimately claim that democracy has been stable, but, based on the criterion of quality of the institutions of democracy, India is still classified as one among the 50 “flawed democracies” of the world. According to the democracy index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 30 countries are full democracies, 50 “flawed democracies”, 36 hybrid regimes and 51 authoritarian regimes out of a total 167 countries. At the rate at which we are abusing the forum of legislature for staging protests and neglecting its primary duties, we may even slip below our present rank in the list of “flawed democracies”.

From the above assessment of the progress in programmes undertaken in the last six decades it is clear that the Constitution, which has been adopted by India, has in no way prevented it from improving on its performance. On the other hand, the manner in which the programmes have been implemented, the intolerable long delays, and, above all, the corruption associated with implementation of programmes, have been responsible for the shortfalls in performance.

Today there are many countries that have Constitutions combining some of the features of the Westminster model and some of the presidential system, but one doubts whether this type of combination will suit India.

I can do nothing better than quote Dr Larry Diamond, a reputed authority in the world on democracy and at present professor of political science and sociology at Stanford University, when he said after his recent visit to India, in the course of a question and answer session, that if India wants to improve its democracy, it must create stronger institutions that allow for horizontal accountability. Also, I strongly endorse his suggestion that India needs a “counter corruption commission”, like the Election Commission, which should be fully autonomous in its authority to check efficiency and punish corruption.