Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reflections from Dhauli, July 2017


A Rock-Face Mirror to Indian Politics: Reflections from Dhauli

You would think that a medium-sized rock-face that can only carry so much text would evoke a reaction that is finite. Wrong. On my third visit to Dhauli, the location of a rock edict promulgated by Asoka, I was again struck by its relevance to our time and this time, it was the text on the Archaeological Survey of India’s information board that had me thinking. They summarise the First Special Rock Edict thus: “Addressing the Mahamatras of Samapa, Asoka proclaims that all his subjects are just like his own children and he wishes their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other as he desires for his own children. He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.”

The last sentence stays with me.

The drama inherent in the story of Asoka’s renunciation of war is irresistible. It captures the imagination the first time you hear it and stirs your soul when you think of the enormity of the epiphany. You forget the years of terrible, often fratricidal violence that preceded the epiphany, and Asoka’s change of heart seems to fill yours with forgetfulness and forgiveness both. You stand at the top of the Dhauli rock and think, “This was the field, this was the river of blood and that was a moment the world should be proud of.” Not quite the same field or stream, but it is hard not to be humbled by the imagined memory of that moment.

The times we inhabit are surely what the Chinese point to in their curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Bad news is everywhere—war, oppression, discrimination, cupidity and stupidity. In such times, the story of Asoka’s epiphany lights a candle of hope. Dare we dream of just such a change of heart in our times?

This time, my third visit, I remember that the drama of the epiphany is captured by another edict (the 13th Major Rock Edict) that is found at locations outside Kalinga—the king’s transformation stopping short of telling the conquered people that he felt bad about conquering them—but this line reminds me of certain qualities of governance which we have prized in other times: “He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.” Vindictiveness is not acceptable, nor is acting in such haste that the person at the receiving end is defenceless.

I read this in the age of an Aadhaar expansion that feels like the death-grip of a python, in the aftermath of a demonetisation that seems to have been characterised by prioritising speed over preparation and in the long-time coming but no clearer for it adoption of the Goods and Services Tax. In an age where governments—across parties—regard people as impediments and dissent as disloyalty, it is the coercive potential of instruments they create to regulate our activities that we must consider more than any transformative potential governments claim. We will lose our privacy and personal security to Aadhaar and I can no longer remember what benefits we are supposed to receive from it. Though WhatsApp polemic dismisses it decisively, real world, ground-level reports are that people did suffer greatly as a result of demonetisation. And GST seems to have created several layers of compliance—where compliance is potentially and in fact, a lever for control.  Haste is disguised as efficiency and the instruments for many a future vendetta lie embedded in these policies. This is history; this is how the state operates.

What we know from Kautilya’s Arthasastra and from Megasthenes’ Indika about Maurya administration tell us about the importance given to two-way communication between the government and local communities. Officials at different levels were required to regularly tour and report back to their supervisors in a chain that ended in the Emperor’s chamber. The first Separate Rock Edict at Dhauli states, “This edict is to he proclaimed on the eighth day of the star Tisya, and at intervals between the Tisya-days it is to be read aloud, even to a single person.” The 14th Major Rock Edict states that the edicts are to be found all over the empire in longer or abridged formats so that people may learn about and conform to them.

To be fair, our government believes in talking to the people—but when the feedback loop is usually left incomplete, either in the design or by not listening, it is not really communication, is it? And this is the question I now have about Asoka’s empire too. So he promulgated these messages and had them carved everywhere, and we learn from other sources that in his time, administrative structures provided for a feedback loop, but did he listen? Did any of the other idealised kings of Indian history listen to anyone who could not insistently ring the bell before their palace and demand justice? Rama acted on popular opinion that he had been wrong to accept Sita after her abduction by Ravana, but did he not act in haste? Did he ask Sita to share with the public her experience of abduction and life as a hostage? Did he consider alternative actions? We know Asoka’s ‘mann ki baat’ but did he know what was in the hearts of his people? We are so impressed by his renunciation of war that we do not stop to ask; everything else he did must also be ideal. In an age where we have both the Right to Information and the means to learn for ourselves, are we asking enough questions of our own governments, persistently enough?

Our credulity is apparently age-old, as we like to claim about everything else—culture, democracy, tolerance. I write these words of doubt, not to detract from Asoka’s moment, but to remind myself that it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt to a distant king more than two millennia removed from my life and another thing to forsake the right to ask questions in our moment. We all need faith and magic, and as a peace activist, I am unwilling to lose the hope Asoka’s epiphany holds out to me—I need to believe changes of heart are possible. I need to believe in the power of love, to use Kenneth Boulding’s words. I need to be able to hope that those who have an ‘accidents happen’ perspective on communal violence, state-sanctioned coercion or militarisation, will someday see things differently—but I cannot afford to grant them anticipatory forgiveness. If the easiest way to raise questions about today is to raise them in the context of a 2000 year old edict, so be it.

Usually associated with a realist, pragmatic, ruler-centred politics, Kautilya’s Arthasastra recognises that the people will and have the right to rebel when their rulers are greedy or unjust. Rulers should guard against rebellion first and foremost by remaining righteous and of course, concerned with the security of the state, the text suggests measures for countering rebellion and treachery but it does not equate the two. But the beginnings of disaffection can only be understood by those who pay attention and want to learn, and disaffection festers. If you suppress or ignore it, it does not go away.

In Indira Gandhi’s centenary year, we are reading a great deal about the Emergency and it is instructive to remember that the road to that hell was also paved with good intentions. Mrs. Gandhi had a closed circle of counselors and she completely misread public opinion, so that the outcome of the 1977 election came as a shock to her. Like Asoka’s edicts and the Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki baat’ episode recordings, the mission of the 20 Point and 5 Point Programme were also laid out on street corners and in advertisements. In the interest of “order,” censorship silenced those who would have asked questions. “All men are my children,” every government tells us—this implies they know what is good for us and we should trust them—but the citizens of a democracy are not children, and anyone who spends time around children know they start out instinctively curious, egalitarian, fair and open. In a democracy, governments should consult and debate with citizens and citizens should pay attention, be informed, question and communicate with the government. Government exists to serve the public interest and this means, all kinds of people. This is the message that Asoka’s edicts also convey repeatedly: That Asoka, seeks the welfare and love of the people; that officials should behave respectfully towards them and that there should be both the perception and reality of fair-play. We are credulous about Asoka because these are values we today hold dear but these very values require us to be sceptical—our Constitution has given us all speaking parts in the unfolding drama of Indian democracy. The success of this play depends also on how we play our roles—with preparation, with courage, with faith in our values but doubt about everything else! 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: Women and militarism in Pakistan

Reviewer’s revelation: I have known the author of this book for over two decades.

I bought my friend Aneela Zeb Babar’s book We Are All Revolutionaries Here as soon as I heard about it—one of the first copies SAGE sold, I think?!—because I know Aneela is a very lively writer and an insightful observer of the everyday realities that make up a social moment. Now, I often buy books enthusiastically and then they sit on my bookshelf for years, waiting for that project which would call for them. Aneela’s, I actually have read right through!

The rate of growth of new subfields in security studies is directly related to government investment in their propagation. A couple of years ago, there was a conference in Washington DC on ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ or CVE. In two year, investment in conferences and research projects has grown apace to generate a minor library of studies that largely recycle the same information—a portion of government perspective, a portion of UN/INGO values, a little nod to empiricism and recommendations, directed at anyone who will listen. I know this because I have had my moment with this, having researched and written a short background note on women and CVE last year.

Into this discursive moment, enters Aneela’s book, a compilation of work done meticulously over a decade or longer, reminding us of the kind of research that actually builds knowledge.

What is this book about? Aneela writes about one of the most-discussed puzzles of our time—what draws people towards worldviews that seem extremely radical and even irrational to others of us? She approaches this question with an open mind and heart, and writes with an honesty that allows us to walk with her. We are in those classrooms and living rooms and offices and discussion groups that she attends, hearing people speaking about what faith has come to mean for them and how it enjoins them to live—not as diktat but as choice. The researcher listens with empathy and writes critically.

One of the charming features of Aneela’s writing is that she blends the personal with the external narrative allowing us to understand her location and her baggage.

The first chapter is about madrassahs and the new hybrid seminaries. Outside Pakistan, we get to read about madrassahs but how many of us know about these new institutions that anchor contemporary curricula in religious education? Graduates enter a variety of professions but share “religious values and a network of contacts” (page 34). These networks are emerging as significant and Aneela suggests are an end in themselves. But students grow up with religious—essentially, status quo—values so deeply ingrained that this schooling deprives “their students of the will to change or challenge all that is flawed in Pakistani society.” There is no reinterpretation or will to resist the challenges that face state and society. Rather than engage with these challenges, young people are choosing to express their values through consumerism of a particular sort.

Aneela’s second and third chapters describes a world many of us will never enter—the world of expatriate Pakistani women and their rediscovery of faith and a faith-based identity. She writes specifically of women she has interviewed in Canberra and the influence of Farhat Hashmi’s Al Huda, an organisation that offers religious lectures and seminars for women. In this world view, the “intrusion of women into the public sphere defined as the ‘men’s area of control’ is seen as leading to the disruption, if not the destruction, of the fundamental order of things” (page 53). Dress, and veiling, are of importance to this discussion. The chapter allows us to hear how women see their own journeys to faith and why this leads them to make the choices they do. More than anything, it takes that amorphous image of veiled, devout women in a mass and turns them into individuals who, we learn, have thoughtfully made choices. Aneela closes her second chapter by pointing out that before the Intefada, few Pakistani women wore the veil but that they now do, may ironically signal that women are part of public life (page 74).

The third chapter, which describes Al Huda’s apparoach and work, is also interesting for what it shows you about gender and class relations in Pakistani society. Drawing women away from frivolous pastimes into religious education and then social service (page 88) without upsetting the patriarchal applecart (page 90), is what Al Huda sets out to do. What sort of social service is not discussed here but it is safe to assume it would not be a social change agenda that disrupts traditional equations.

With the madrassas and hybrid schools as well as Al Huda, Aneela points out that there is a homogenizing drive—a simplification of interpretation, an erasure of ethnic, linguistic and maybe theological difference. In her style, she then draws the narrative to herself and underscores what is lost when such essentialism takes over. What she writes about Islam in Pakistan is also true of other faiths in other places.

In ‘Texts of War,’ Aneela shows us that when militarism is deeply entrenched in a society, carrying guns is a common dream among young women as well as men. This chapter literally wanders through the rooms of this reality—with a literature review on the role of the military, its relationship with religion, women in the military and media representations thereof and the mirror image of all this in a society where girls and boys receive a religious education. Where does Pakistan’s only female Prime Minister fit into this picture? “Yes, we did salute her but you have to understand that the elation was not there in the heart of the soldier,” an officer told Aneela (page 122). Interviews with teenagers conducted in 1999 form a part of this chapter.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, the Pakistani army laid siege to Lal Masjid, which along with the attached Jamia Hafsa madrassa had come under the sway of a pair of militant brothers. In that siege, 154 were killed.  Aneela uses eyewitness and first-person accounts to narrate what happened from the perspective of those within the walls of the complex, many of them young girls. In fact, the chapter is largely made up of the translation of one such account by Umme Hassan. The polemics of this account showed that the young women had thought about issues beyond defending the mosque but they were not, Aneela tells us, feminist because they continued to reinforce “traditional, static and unchanging articulations of Muslim women” (page 167).

This book allows us to peer over a neighbourly wall and to eavesdrop on conversations that women are having about life, world and faith, and inevitably, politics. We get to meet the women that do not attend Southasian track two programmes or seminars and we are privy to their journeys. Aneela tells us that we will see a “more firebrand generation of young women” (page 170). When we do, this book will remind us of the influences that shaped them and our time.

Coming back then to this idea of ‘extremism,’ what this book allows you to see is that there is nothing really extreme about it when you are inside that society, on your journey. It is your evolution, seeking answers for your life and following those answers logically. To understand is to justify, and that is one reason to other that which threatens what we hold dear, but without understanding and empathy, can we resolve? Will there be a solution to the violence of this historical moment that is not rooted in understanding and empathy—that you feel as you do because of where you come from and what you have been through, and what you believe is what allows you to make sense of your life? I don’t know. But reading Aneela’s book allowed me to look long and hard and try to learn something about a world that is just outside the limits of mine, but finding its way into my backyard as well.
My big complaint with this book is that it could have been better edited. It is the writer’s prerogative to spill words on a page and the editor’s job to clean, sort and craft them into a higher form of her art. The result is an absorbing text that is sometimes stream-of-consciousness—you get the gist but cannot find the point—or a structure you can recapitulate or argument you can summarise. For a work that is so unusual and important, the apparent absence of editorial engagement is a big setback.   
You can read this book for many reasons. You can read it to learn about what women’s lives are really like in Pakistan and what ideas about masculinity and femininity are now circulating. You can read it for the insights it offers into “radicalisation” and extremism, especially how the state becomes complicit in this process. You can read it for the many stories and anecdotes it is built around, which allow you to visit Pakistan in a way that other academic writing will not. You can read it for the meticulous research that is reported (like translations of original literature, for instance). You can read it because it’s a really good example of feminist scholarship and writing—in its approach, its transparency. But really, if you pretend to have an interest in gender, Pakistan (or Southasia) extremism or social change, you should read this book.

PS: Aneela, please review my review kindly!


Sunday, May 21, 2017

What fundraising feels like

What does it feel like to be fundraising for a small organisation?
Do you remember that feeling from your early, early childhood when you cried and cried and cried and your voice died in your throat and no sound emerged except something a wheezing wail and your eyes ran dry but couldn't open and you raised your arms to an empty room... and you were so desperate but no one heard you?
They had all left you alone knowing you couldn't walk.
Do you remember how you felt in that moment?
That.
I wanted to write this down because I may never find these words again.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

It's not the stone

Wandering through Sunder Nagar market in Delhi, I step into Jaipur Jewels just out of curiosity. What is 'Jaipur'  about their jewelry, I want to know.

It's one of those quiet, understated showrooms that people like me rarely visit. I think, "This was a mistake." My handloom kurta is very plain and very crumpled. Only my Kandy-style earrings look remotely like they belong in this store.

I have not reckoned on the warmth and hospitality that are at the heart of the North Indian merchant's marketing genius.

I am welcomed like an old friend and when  I say I just came to look,  one person steps out to show. He takes out the most dramatic display pieces with pride and then shares design and provenance details as if I were either a serious buyer or a fellow expert. No condescension, no 'don't waste my time.' I begin to feel really bad and then, I am invited to just sit and see.

I reluctantly sit, feeling guilty because I know I cannot afford any of this.

With the pride of an artist, the whole team shares their favorite pieces with me. A casual visit becomes a gift.

I cannot find words to describe what I saw.

A sakla so supply crafted that gold flows and twists and winds around your imagination rather than your wrist.

Bangles that combine every lapidary art and stretch one's imagination -- polki, jadau, enamel...  I wanted to tweet but I knew words would fail me.

Earrings that are cascades of colour... A pair of cascading lotus petals in pearl, pink tourmaline and delicate gold... But wait, he turns it over and it's even more stunning. It's enamel painted as exquisitely as a Jaipur miniature.

Strings of stones and pearl that look sunlight glistening on the ripples in a backwater pool.

They make me try on a beautiful pearl necklace with lovely gold kairis in the pendant and a small, delicately dangling polki pendant. It's lovely. Looks better on me than I would have imagined.

They keep telling me that the tradition and the stones and the work are valuable. Yes. But the imagination and the devotion that makes this work happen is invaluable.

As is their warmth.

PS: I  bought nothing. But in another life,  maybe.