Sunday, December 2, 2007

Celebrating xenophobia: The second round

The Indian Express filed an RTI on the question of foreign research scholars being denied visas. Finally, they have a positive response. Read on:

Shubhajit Roy, Now you will know why and how Govt rejects foreign scholars, asks them to change subjects, Indian Express, December 02, 2007.

Just to remind you, here is a link to the older post on this issue:

Back in Alberuni's India (But did we ever leave?)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Geert Mak's "In Europe"

Earlier this year, I got a copy of Geert Mak's "In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century." I dipped into it at a couple of bookstores, and was convinced I should read it. I brought it back to India and started it in June. I just finished it last week. Admittedly, it is a huge book (over 800 pages) and I have been very busy, but that is still a very long time for me to take over one book.

What a masterpiece!

It is a 20th century history structured like a travelogue, but there are places where the archival research could rival a traditional history book and places where the first person account is pure oral history.

For me, one of the most striking things about this book is the time and attention devoted to the Second World War. When you study either modern European history or the history of international relations at an Indian university, WWII (in student-write) is usually important but occupies no more than a maximum of 15-20% of the curriculum. Geert Mak devotes at least half and sometimes it seems like a lot more, of his book to this event.

There are first person descriptions of key events, carefully reconstructed battlefield accounts and passages from diaries and letters that describe life during the war. I wanted very much to quote some of them but I did not, alas, read the book with a pencil or place bookmarks along the way so I cannot. There is no escaping how horrible the wartime experience was for any side.

From the chapter on Leningrad in 1942:
page 430: ' "You had to be in line at the bakery at 5 a.m., by 11.00 there was no bread left. It wasn't easy to walk around when you were starving, you had to drag yourself along by force of will. If possible, you kept all your clothes on in bed. You lay there like a big ball of rags, you forgot you even had a body. But, well, we were young Soviets, we had absolutely no doubt that we would be victorious." '
Page 431: ' "It was the women who won the war, everyone knows that. Their lot was the heaviest to bear. The party bosses could leave the city and come back by plane. They had their own food flown in as well, we found out about that a few years ago. They told dramatic stories about all their heroic hardships, but meanwhile they took good care of themselves. The common people couldn't do that. We wasted away; we were being shelled all the time."

If I had not told you that was about Leningrad in 1942, you could have assumed it was any contemporary war zone.

I would recommend this book as a companion to any European history text. I think it is a hard read but only because of the seriousness of its subject matter.

The writing is excellent, even in translation (or should I say the translation by Sam Garrett is excellent) and it humanizes events whose reach was global although in Mak's book, the rest of the world is really a distant footnote. That is in itself odd given Europe's imperial commitments at this time.

In that sense, along with the attention focused on one period and the relative lack of attention to the impact of decolonization, Mak underscores the very Eurocentric nature of the European perception of this war. I am not a historian of this period but I do not think I would be far off the mark in saying that by contrast, America's engagement with the world really began during this war. American popular histories, in print or film, seem to take cognizance of non-Euro-American people who were part of the war effort, even if Americans are portrayed in a singularly heroic light. I am only talking here of the way in which the Second World War is portrayed and perceived, and from a very inexpert perspective.

I found this book marvelous too for its descriptions of small detail and its quiet humour, expressed as relish rather than mockery, of the things that make us human. I am sure someone with the inclination will find a million things to deconstruct and critique from some deeply political perspective. I just soaked in the detail and traveled through time with Mak. I wish someone would write something like this on our part of the world.

And what I was going to say right after that, reminded me of another remarkable feature of this book: Mak himself features very little through its 800-plus pages although you know it is a journey he is undertaking and he does occasionally refer to himself to tell us where he went and how. It is a book written without the need to showcase the author's genius, and therefore, it does precisely that.

I cannot do justice to this book in one post, and I would really urge you to find a copy and persevere through it. As for me, this is going to be the year of 'fat books' (started with Rajmohan Gandhi's 'Mohandas' which I loved) and I have Ramachandra Guha's book and Nayan Chanda's as well waiting for me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gandhi and me (and you, if you like)

Everyone is writing about Gandhiji, why not me?

Earlier this year, I read Rajmohan Gandhi's 'Mohandas' and found it utterly absorbing. Having grown up on a mind-numbing diet of Gandhian hagiographical texts that caricatured and rendered him boring, I was captivated to discover him as a person, and a person I could have related to, in this account.

Six months after that reading, the image that stands out the most in my mind is that of a person all alone in spite of the crowd around. There is actually a paragraph in which the author signals this, but as the story of Gandhi's life moves towards its conclusion, it is hard to miss. When everyone called him Mahatma, placed him on a pedestal, asked him for advice, to whom could he have said: I am not sure or I don't know why but I just feel low today? To his credit, he did not hesitate to voice doubt. He was not encumbered by the need to keep up appearances. If he was not sure or if he found himself inconsistent, we know it now. 'Satyameva jayate,' but the point of departure with Gandhi was that he was as honest with himself and about himself with others as he could muster. This is greater heroism than camping in strife-torn Noakhali, in my view. Harder to overcome the impulse to construct a heroic meta-narrative for one's own life than anything else.

Also difficult, the need to align one's life and ideology, one's personal habits and one's rhetoric, and Gandhi tried to do this admirably and annoyingly; he was evangelical about some of these things. But as I write this, I think that for all my blogging about the lack of public sanitation, if I were Gandhi, I would probably go out there and start cleaning up after people. Now the moment I say that, this Gandhian streak seems less annoying and more admirable.

In fact, the alignment of personal and political in Gandhi's life is remarkable because of the way it manifests. In our day, it is more common to see it in the form of friendships at best and patronage or nepotism at worst. For Gandhiji, it took two forms. The first is this need to walk the talk, to do what you say should be done. The second is closely aligned: a cultivation of personal qualities that have been valued by this civilization at all times.

These qualities begin with the ability to be true to yourself and to be honest. Gandhi's language reflects his deep roots in Indian ways of thinking and being, and being true to yourself is also being true to your dharma (however you define it). This is the second quality: courage of conviction, and doing what is right or righteous. Gandhi's references to Rama evoke not a mythical or historical personage as much as they do a set of values for public life: upholding dharma or law, carrying out one's duty, doing what is needed, taking action. (It is another matter that we may read those definitions of dharma or right action differently; but the right or even duty to define for oneself is surely part of this tradition.)

More than all of these, for years now, I have been struck by the idea that a satyagrahi must first meet some criteria before she can offer satyagraha (not wage, but offer). The notion that a degree of personal evolution is a prerequisite for political or public action moves me greatly. It resonates with the important Indian value that saiyyam (self-control or self-discipline, but less negatively) is to be cultivated by all persons and personages. The Puranas are full of stories about gods (Indra, most often) who are unable to control their lusts, their egos, their anger. Indra's repeated fall from grace is a mythical illustration of Shantideva's advice that a moment of anger can be a monumental spiritual setback.

I will not declare here that all politicians are bad or politics stinks. But how many politicians or political activists can you think of that come into the public arena without avarice or ambition, without anger or without ego. Each of these is harder to lose than the one before. We may not seek fame and fortune in politics, but how much better is it if your activity is constantly fueled by anger?Nowadays, I find that perpetual outrage very hard to be around. Yes, there is a great deal to be outraged about, but witnessing the anger, one should be able to move without it towards action. And leaving behind ego? For most of us, it would be hard to separate our selves from our egos even intellectually.

Gandhi's view that the satyagrahi within has to cultivated before a person can offer satyagraha is therefore inspiring. It is irrelevant whether Gandhi or any other satyagrahi consistently and perfectly met this requirement. What is very relevant is the idea that social change begins within a single individual, that the individual's inner journey animates the public one.

This works on so many levels. If I am struggling and struggling with awareness and honesty that I am, I am more compassionate towards others, no matter what their challenges. Compassion enhances my identification with them, and motivates me to serve, surely an imperative in public life. The will to serve slowly diminishes the ego, as does the recognition that we are all the same. In the context of a long journey, small lapses are small; in the absence of that journey, there are only lapses.

As I grow older and want to commit more and more of my time to broader objectives, I find myself reflecting on this a great deal. My appreciation of Gandhiji's journey improves as I understand how profound his inner challenges must have been. At the same time, I grow fonder of him--almost as a family member--as I realize that his road and mine or yours are not that different. He too had to work hard at overcoming a liking for this or a distaste for that. He too had to learn patience. He had to learn to be honest, more and more honest. Because he acknowledged being challenged, it is easier to face our challenges. It was not his ambition to become a Mahatma, but by looking each situation in the eye and patiently seeking to resolve it, responding to the demands of each moment, and then being honest about his inner struggles each time, he became one.

Mahatma-hood has served Gandhiji ill. It has separated him from us. It has taken a quirky, lively person and made him a plaster-of-Paris saint cum cure for insomnia. It has created an industry of image-makers for this iconoclast. It has replaced the drama and colour of his life for vapid dialogues and insipid sepia tones. The Mahatma's life is told as a string of discrete events--born in Porbandar, went to South Africa, got pushed off a train, started a farm, came to India, became Father of the Nation--which obfuscate how he lived and who he was. None of this makes a difference to Gandhi, but what a loss to us!

Friday, September 28, 2007

If they're good enough for Kabul.....

...why can't we have more of them here?

How can I fail to link to this report that the Government of India is assisting with the construction of Sulabh Shauchalayas in Kabul?
Meanwhile, with the felling of trees and the excavation of roads in my neighbourhood, all in the name of building a flyover, I do not want to imagine what the state of the side-streets (aka public lavatories) will be when the rains come next month.

Why does this not outrage those who are outraged by the nuclear deal and Sethusamudram?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

What's wrong with being a feminist?

In the last two or three days, I have met several people who want to reassure me that someone or the other is not a feminist. Since I AM a feminist, this puzzles me.

I have always been a feminist, before I knew the word, before I knew there was theory to go with it, before I knew much about women's movements. The marvelous definition that Cheris Kramerae and Paula Treichler came up with ("Feminism is the radical notion that women are people") resonates in any time and space (which really is most of them) that dehumanizes women.

In the US in the early 1990s, I learned that it had become very un-cool for young women to be feminists. I did not understand it, but as all international travellers learn to do at some point, figured, "It's their culture."

It is beginning to bother me now. When someone assures me that they or another person is not a feminist, I hear a justification for middle class male assertiveness and bullying. A couple of years ago, at a seminar in Chennai on violence against women, someone had the temerity to say: "I do not understand what women want. Young girls these days are not even willing to make tea!" Now, this gentleman was only saying aloud what many people think, I suspect. When I hear statements like that by Pratibha Patil's Government Law College classmate (which I cannot find to link here) that she is not a feminist, which we are told is not something he finds appealing (do I care?!), then I go back to that moment at the seminar. It's an experience like nails scratching a blackboard.

When a woman tells me that she or someone else is not a feminist, I hear a quiet pride that makes me want to cry for all those feminists that made it possible for her to stand up and say anything at all and for all those women and girls who still need her help. I hear the contemporary public space equivalent of young middle class Indian girls who are raised not just to sew, cook and clean for their future sasuraals but also to sing, dance, play instruments and paint--to never have any of those gifts encouraged again. I feel like the woman is trying to curry favour with some patriarchal standard that should not exist in the first place.

And how can feminism not be relevant still in an age when reporters trying for the human interest angle on this presidential nomination, are getting us certificates for Ms. Patil being a good wife, a good mother, a modest lady, traditional looking but of scientific temperament. What a relief! What a tragedy if our woman-President should be dignified, competent, brilliant and experienced but not any of these things! Would India survive?

I have a pretty decent memory and it is now more than thirty years since I started reading newspapers with comprehension. I am pretty sure I never learned the answer to these questions so I will ask them now:
1. Was S. Radhakrishnan a good father?
2. Did K.R. Narayanan worry about disruptions in schooling when he was a diplomat?
3. Was V.V. Giri a good husband?
4. Was Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy modest?
5. Was Rajendra Prasad traditional-looking but scientific?
6. Did Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed do a good job of juggling household responsibilities with a political career?
7. And this is very important: did Giani Zail Singh fast a few times every week?

And some feminist ones too: Did any of them beat their wives? How many gave or took dowries? How many of them tried like Insy Winsy spider to have sons? How many observed rituals that were demeaning to women in their lives? I am going to give in to temptation and ask, how many were fit to head a state with a declining number of women?

Now, I don't mean to malign our former Heads of State. I am simply trying to point out that now that a woman has been nominated (and everyone wants credit for this "progressive" gesture that makes me want to curtsey with Eliza Doolittle and sing, "How KIND of you to let me come!"), we are being given all sorts of information about her that has no bearing on her appropriateness for that office. And if it is appropriate, did anyone ask these questions of the men that went before her? What's sauce for the gander, is sauce for the goose too.

A feminist consciousness would allow us to respect and discuss our Presidents and Presidential nominees without making reference to their gender, their adherence to gender stereotypes and standards and based, as we like to say in India, on the merits of each case.

Once, in another lifetime, an Indian man (a friend, even teacher) said to me, half in jest, half as accusation, "You say all these (feminist) things, because you studied abroad." I said to him, "No, it is because I have been meeting Indian men all my life." Now, I assure you that some of my best friends are men, but I must say, that there is no better grounding for feminism than a large circle of male acquaintances. But I am not a feminist because I know obnoxious, abusive, annoying, pompous or tedious men.

I am a feminist because I am alive and I can see, hear, think, have empathy and feel. Being a feminist is not a grafted set of preferences but the natural outgrowth of seeing women treated as less than human in many settings, of being silenced, patronized, dismissed or elbowed out (or seeing others treated that way), of growing up around strong women and not knowing I had a place that I had to know. Being a feminist for me has been and remains being a woman who will exercise the right to think for herself, to have her own preferences on all matters across the board, to disregard limits and limitations placed on her and to act when moved to do so. It is the right to dream without a framework and the right to make my dreams come true. It is the right to speak my mind when something is wrong and to speak for something I feel is right. It is the right to be a person.

What's wrong with any of this? What's wrong with being a feminist?

Friday, June 15, 2007

High Office, High Status?

In the sixtieth year of the Indian Republic (which it is not), the nomination of Pratibha Patil is being greeted as a mark of Indian respect for women (which it is not).

Let me address why I do not think this is a mark of respect for women. The post of President in the Indian Republic is a symbolic and ceremonial one. If it seems important today, that is a function of the character and calibre of the incumbent. It has not always seemed like such a significant office, and while there was always some politicking that preceded it, the fuss this time is a first. It is because President Kalam brought his energy and enthusiasm that the office has begun to seem like it might matter. In sum, if the next President has a different temperament and energy, the Indian Presidency will be back to ceremony, symbolism and etiquette. And it really won’t matter except in a crisis who occupies Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Am I saying the Indian presidency doesn’t matter? Of course, not; of course, it does. But less in the ways that are suggested when someone says that a woman becoming President is a mark of respect for women. It has been hugely important to have a President whose integrity is unchallenged, whose imagination and openness to ideas were inspiring to many and whose energy and attention to detail made a difference in many places starting with the running of the presidential palace itself. The President, we have seen, can really be a role model—a youth icon, to use the language of MTV. But the Indian president wields very little power, and that is the acid test here.

Moreover, there is a difference of value between direct and indirect election. While the latter is sometimes more convenient, in a democracy, it never has the value of a direct endorsement by those who cared enough to vote. The Indian President is not directly elected (nor is the American, theoretically) and therefore, never has the independent mandate or power base that the American or French or Sri Lankan Presidents have.

The second reason why I don’t think this nomination is a mark of women’s progress is clear if you contrast the fact that Sonia Gandhi, who is undoubtedly one of the most powerful people in India, is never described as the woman president of the Indian National Congress. Ditto Jayalalithaa. When you qualify any office by gender or any other identity marker, it becomes clear that symbolism and tokenism are at play. If in fact, women had significant access to power at all levels, their ascension to high office would be routine. There would neither be a glass ceiling of the sort Hillary Clinton is trying so hard to shatter nor would there be a ‘coup by affirmative action,’ which is a nasty thing to say, I know, but quite likely an accurate description of the thinking that preceded Ms. Patil’s nomination.

The third and most important reason that President Pratibha Patil will not signify the progress of women is to be found in the homes and workplaces and streets of India. When women are safe in their homes from the men who claim in public to respect and worship them; when they can step down from those pedestals and altars long enough to earn a living and build a good life for themselves and those they care about; and, when they can consider careers in politics in the way that they do in engineering and medicine so that parties don’t have to make a conscious choice to nominate and appoint them, then women will have progressed in India.

Moreover, and this is my final reason for not over-reading this as a landmark for women, women in high office, or any office, do not necessarily make a difference in areas that concern women. It is an essentialist myth that a woman in power will address the needs and concerns of women. She might, or she might not. She might not care; she might care but lack clout; she might have other matters that seem more important to her. And then she might address these questions (like violence against women; access to livelihoods, credit and property rights; reproductive health issues) but do so in ways that are retrogressive. After all, all women are not feminists. And the rise to power makes its own demands. The track record of women in power working to empower is not as good as one would hope.

Having said all this, it still feels good to think of a woman occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan and one who has worked hard through her political career. I grew up with Madam Prime Minister and as I am fond of saying, did not know that you could associate male pronouns and adjectives with this office till I was in Junior College. I want small girls beginning to read newspapers today to feel the same way: that all symbolic and real offices of power are usually occupied by women and that therefore it is a perfectly natural and sensible thing to aspire to them. Careers in public service should have the appeal that careers in showbusiness do (after all, they are not that different in some ways!). I want young girls to see Sonia Gandhi and Pratibha Patil, the way they do Shabana Azmi and Jayalalithaa, Sunita Williams and Sania Mirza, and say, “When I grow up, I am going to be President of India.”

I delight in the fact that our wonderful handloom fabrics and textiles can be shown off by our Head of State, who may no longer be a dull male elder in grey or black bandh-gala or cream shervani (or a bright male elder dully dressed). I want the world to see, in the splendor of the Mughal gardens, the richness of Kanchi pattu in jewel colours and Banarasis in twilight pastels and Muga silks that reflect the light. Or the hardy vividness of the Puneri cotton saree, the delicate brightness of the Kota, the sombre white and gold of Kerala cottons and the thoughtful lightness of the Bengal. Ikat blouses, Khadi sarees, Himachal and Bandhni shawls and coats with Kashmiri embroidery.

And now a parochial confession: I was born and raised as a Tamilian in Maharashtra and now I am a displaced Maharashtrian in Tamil Nadu. That the outgoing President and the one likely to succeed him are from these two states does give me a cheap thrill. Yeah, yeah, we are all Indians and of course, I am. But in a polity where the people of the Gangetic plain garner all the main speaking parts from epoch to epoch, I am happy to have my own people there, centre-stage albeit in non-speaking parts.

(Post-script: No, the Indian Republic does not turn sixty this year; that will happen on January 26, 2010. This year, the independent Indian state turns sixty on August 15. Between August 15, 1947 and January 26, 1950, India was not a republic but an independent dominion.)

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Home Thoughts from Abroad, Written at Home

(I have been updating my other blog far more regularly than this one. Now that I am back from my holiday, I am crossposting my last entries there into this blog as well: one and two.)

Home Thoughts from Abroad, Written at Home

I start this post on a sultry morning, wondering where all the words vanished that I composed so brilliantly as we drove around Holland. Let's see if their remains can reconstruct their essence.

Comparison is a way of thinking and seeing the world, we learn in comparative politics classes. Comparisons are odious, the world tells us. And I say, comparisons are instructive and even inspiring. We have had so many occasions to compare the Netherlands and India, particularly Chennai. The comparisons have favoured both sides in turn and I want to share them with you, starting with the ones in which India and Indians do really well.

Where India and Indians score

Of all the things you start to remember fondly about India and Indians, compassion in interpersonal interactions (I am not talking about inter-communal relations) and customer service stand out. The small attentions and acts of caring that Indians, total strangers, especially traveling strangers will perform for each other--offering medicine, water, food, a helping hand--stand out in sharp contrast to the more transactional style of other cultures. Especially when you fly a western airline. (Of course, there are wonderful, warm and compassionate people everywhere and Indians can be cruel, especially to less fortunate Indians, but still what I am saying will ring true to anyone who has traveled widely.)

It is hard to hold on to this rosy view, however, as you observe the crowd rushing towards airport gates as if the flight will leave without them on board. When the act of compassion is followed by questions about your family history, your lifestyle choices and gratuitous advice on all matters.

The glow returns as you walk through European stores where store staff treat you with an indiscriminate coldness that says: I don’t care if you are going to buy up all our stock, wipe your shoes, pick up after yourself and don’t talk to me. Suddenly the over-attentive girls in white coats in Chennai stores seem marginally less irritating. And one misses the shopkeeper in Bombay or Delhi who says: Look, look, what is the harm in looking? Or even the efficient Nalli or Kumaran floor supervisors who say, yes, what are you looking for, what is your budget and shepherd you to the right place.

One also notices the absence of those proto-relationships one has with service providers and vendors in India (and elsewhere in South Asia). That people do not remember each other in spite of repeated interaction over a long period of time just stuns me. To walk into stores where you have purchased things for many years, to recognize the sales staff but have them look at you (a rare South Asian in a European sea) as if they have never met you before… that actually happens most places outside this region. In South Asia, for the most part, like two points make a line, two interactions (or even one) are enough to form the skeleton of a relationship. This skeletal structure gives them permission to remember my purchasing habits or even that I have not come to the store in a saree, and it gives me permission to say, how are you today and over time, enquire about the family or the business. This is not true of course, of the new malls and department stores, but it still holds good for the family businesses and shops that still dominate retail. It is excellent business practice; I equate being remembered with being able to trust and it is repeat business for the store.

My sociologist friend tried to explain, and I will try and paraphrase from memory (please comment to correct or clarify): she said that Dutch society had never been feudal and like adjacent parts of France and England (across the channel), had always had nuclear families. Not being feudal meant that responsibility for a community and community affiliation clustered around church parishes. In spite of their maritime and commercial history, then, the Dutch did not reach out and did not learn to reach out to people beyond their community. She also said that self-sufficiency and the expectation of self-sufficiency followed from the fact that young people would leave home early to go to town to learn a trade and then build their families with themselve as the starting point. So each one helps themselves and expects that others can take care of themselves too.

My friend stressed the (non-feudal) egalitarian nature of Dutch society. When I asked her to compare it to non-hierarchical American society (and whether that stereotype holds true is another debate altogether), and she said something very interesting (also revealing a common perception of American society held outside that continent): The Dutch are blunt to the point of rudeness because they don’t think anyone will shoot them for it.

Let’s go Dutch!

The first thing that strikes you when you start driving out of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is how orderly everything seems. Even the trees grow, neatly spaced, in a straight line. That impression is reinforced by everything you encounter. Well, fair enough, one thinks, after all, much of Holland is reclaimed land, and planned construction allows one to impose a linear order on nature.

But what accounts for the people here? As far as one sees and hears and reads, it is the same mad human race that inhabits this space, the one that drives badly elsewhere; will not stand in queues; talks loudly and violates rules; spits, urinates and defecates in public spaces; and evades tax. What makes them so well-behaved here? (Rude, but well-behaved!) I don’t know, but it should be a wonder of the world.

We sat at the window everyday and watched Leiden file by, in perfect order. Traffic is orderly, trains are orderly, people are orderly. (You get the picture.)

And we remembered Ranganathan Street and its chaos. The mad traffic of humans, cows and cars at the entrance of Colaba market. The craziness of trying to get on or off a plane or train in India. Spitting at no-spitting signs. Sticking posters over do-not-stick warnings. Men urinating everywhere unless there is the picture of a god, goddess or saint (the origins of image worship?) before them. “Queues” pressed abreast a teller’s counter. And held our heads in our hands at the memory.

Why do we preen at our bad behaviour? Indeed, why do most humans defend really bad behaviour by using words like: spontaneous, free, open, natural… what is natural about lack of consideration or lack of civic sense? Sometimes we also romanticize it: this is how we are, the world marvels at our functioning chaos, our chaos is colourful, being in India is about experiencing heat, dust and dirt.

It makes me cringe. It makes me sad. It makes me want to step out and trying to change things.

One of the things I really want to change is the way we run our museums. The Dutch love their museums and why not, they are everywhere, you can enter free on certain days, they are well laid out and organized and you can actually learn something while having fun.

There are some very obvious problems with museums in India: lack of resources, lack of skilled workers, low priority status in the face of other issues and a public that will neither pay willingly nor take care of existing resources. I have visited the Colombo Museum twice, and it has been a few years now so it could have changed, but to get to the most amazing part of their collection—their bronzes—you had to walk far into the back, past some very dull exhibits of boats and bats. Contrast that to the Rijksmuseum that we visited a few weeks ago: it is undergoing huge repairs and renovation but instead of shunting a few works into a tent or basement, they have taken the trouble to renovate one wing and curate a smaller collection of masterpieces that they show with the same care and attention to detail as if it were their entire permanent collection. The result: a wonderful, learning experience for the hundreds who walk through everyday.

I have visited some amazing museums in South Asia and they deserve a mention here if only to show that we could do as well as anyone if we cared enough. In no particular order:
  • Lok Virsa, Islamabad, showcases the folk cultures of Pakistan. It is user-friendly, entertaining and teaches without inducing sleep. The staff are very welcoming, especially if you are an Indian.
  • Dakshina Chitra, Chennai, recreates the art, architecture and material culture of South India on a sprawling (and sadly still shade-less) campus. Each reconstructed house is furnished in traditional style, down to the line of family photographs. You become interested in spite of yourself and the heat.
  • The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is the first museum I visited that I really enjoyed walking through. This was seventeen years ago and there wasn’t enough text to explain the art, but it was still a good experience because the exhibited works were well-arranged and there was enough light to look at them everywhere.
  • Chennai’s newly re-done bronze gallery is fabulous. Where the other sections are still like dressed up warehouses galleys, the bronze gallery shows what the Museum staff are capable of if someone cared enough to support them.
  • Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, where I first noticed paintings with interest because they were so beautifully laid out that they looked even more beautiful.
  • Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune, whose collection of everyday objects is exquisite. I learnt to notice beauty in small things by seeing how Dinkar Kelkar saw.
  • New Delhi’s Railway Museum and Dolls’ Museum are also remarkable little treasures.

I want to stress that the problem is not with the exhibits. There are gorgeous and fascinating objects in the collections of the Delhi and in the Museum in Bombay (which has been recently redone, I hear). But when will we learn to enjoy them? And cherish them?

Who in their right mind would deny that India’s, South Asia’s civilization and arts are rare in their antiquity and their excellence? Not Indians, who are justifiably proud of this inheritance. When however, I see how the Dutch (and the Belgians) cherish and showcase every small aspect of their culture (art, musical instruments, chocolates, posters, stamps, trains, etc.), I am saddened and moved to act on our behalf.

We have so much to show and showcase, even conceding to cultural studies scholars that all showcasing is problematic. I want to be part of an effort to showcase well. And I want to be part of an effort to make us take a real interest in our own heritage. I worry that what we are getting left with is the stuff that was meant for the garbage dump—puberty and widowhood rituals played out over three to five days in all Sun TV serials, for instance. We are losing our appreciation of our own textiles, our understanding of our iconography and architecture, our taste for our own food and our embrace of our own inner diversity.

That is another striking comparison, by the way. Indians are constantly negotiating the politics of our diversity. It is interesting to watch how the Dutch, like other Europeans, are learning to see themselves as not culturally homogeneous. This is the beginning of an interesting journey for them, and one that is slightly further along in the US. From India’s point of view, their current politics is our ancient and continuing history. Stratification, hierarchy and ethnic diversity have been a part of every period in every South Asian region’s history.

The mirror shows you your face and when you point at someone, your fingers point back at you! That travel teaches you a lot, goes without saying. When you travel widely and spend time outside your home, you know that travel—like any other form of education—ultimately teaches you more about yourself than anything outside of you. From the vantage point of Leiden Centraal, the clearest view was the one closest to home for me—and maybe in some way, for you too?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Swachchha Narayani: A Goddess We Need

Sometimes when friends initiate discussions on random statements by politicians or are incensed about matters of high politics, I express my irritation with a dismissive statement which I really mean seriously: I think the most pressing policy issue in India may be the lack of public toilets, or sanitation. So I read this old blog entry by Madhu Kishwar with surprise and joy.

But seriously, why do we not consider sanitation and the provision of clean, public facilities to be important? Sometimes my mother remarks that I have been very lucky in my life: all my jobs have been at places with good bathrooms for women. This is no laughing matter. When you walk from Pondy Bazaar on a parallel road to the one we live off, you can follow the stench of urine to find your way. The path has other names but I call it 'Moothram' (urine) Alley. Yuck, indeed, but I persist in doing so in the hope that it will continue to remind us of work we have not done. And all the polluters on Moothram Alley are male. So what do the women do? Women exercise supreme control to the point of illness and disease.

This is a serious issue. It impinges on public health, public decency, workplace conditions, tourism prospects and women's security. This last is not a trivial listing. Women cannot walk down public paths for seeing men line up against walls. That can bar many urban roads and paths forcing women to take the long route, walk further for the same purpose. In Delhi on the JNU road, men don't even see walls. It is disgusting! Men can 'go' free but women must avert their eyes at all times, just in case. And don't offer me street food anyone--I don't even sit by windows in cafes! (And let me underscore, I have choices, others don't!)

More treacherous are reports that come from conflict and disaster contexts, where displaced women are unable to safely access the toilet. They have to walk a long way to reach the toilet and then it may be dirty, lack water or privacy. Women also have to walk by men to reach the toilet and are subject to harrassment along the way. This means they end up waiting to gather a critical mass even to just relieve themselves or that they go out before sunrise or after sunset. Infection and disease follow not from the disaster, but from these secondary conditions.

Swachchha Narayani does not come a day too soon into our lives. And she is not the first divine entity to be summoned to this cause. Many walls in India bear tiled images of gods and goddesses in the good faith that their divinity will secure the wall from such abuse.

In my schooldays, we had a subject called Community Living in which civic values of many sorts were imparted as lessons--do not litter, observe traffic rules, say thank you and sorry and so on. With the introduction of television, we saw short Films Division products that reemphasised the same values. Where are these now?

In Tamil Nadu (and I am sure elsewhere in India), why is colour television more important than public health? And why is the right of males to urinate and defecate at their pleasure the most carefully protected civil right? Is this what will change if there were more women in government? I hope so. In this case, I am willing to start India's non-partisan version of Emily's List, the US organization that supports pro-choice Democratic female candidates' election campaigns.

In this country, there are many problems and many inequities, but in my view, this one stinks the most!

Friday, March 30, 2007

The role (if any) of public intellectuals (if any) in India

At the risk of this seeming like an Indian Express promotion blog, I want to point to two articles in that paper that raise important question about the role of intellectuals in Indian public discourse.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, On their Marx, ready to bow, Indian Express, March 27, 2007.
Peter Ronald DeSouza, And miles to go before they wake, Indian Express, March 30, 2007.

For Dr. Mehta, these questions go back to understanding the role of the university in cultivating "the life of the mind," as he puts it. These are issues he raised several months ago during a debate in the editorial columns of the Indian Express (again) and Outlook magazine between him and Yogendra Yadav, among others. That debate was sparked by a disagreement within the Knowledge Commission about the efficacy of reservations.

What is the role of public intellectuals in any society, and what can it be in this one? More important, we need to ask what makes a person a public intellectual as opposed to an expert, a retired government servant, an academic or a senior journalist.

What do you think?

Sunday, March 25, 2007


There is a new movie about the 1971 conflict, one reads, but that is not why I am thinking about the events of that year in South Asia. Last night, we were reminiscing about a little girl I used to know.

We were both little girls. Standard I or younger, St. Joseph's, RC Church, Bombay. She lived a few buildings away from me in the Port Trust compound in Colaba. Her name was Nafisa and we used to play together. The reminiscences began with my mother reminding me of how we would walk each other home. Nafisa would walk me home because I was not allowed to walk by myself. But neither was she, so I would walk her home. Then she would walk me back. The loop was endless till an adult accompanied us. Our laughter reminded me of something else.

Three girls, on the primary school platform, discussing the world around us with the gravity of seven year olds. Nafisa announced that they were going to Pakistan because they were Muslims. I did not understand the connection at all, but was impressed by her serious face. And so it was that one day we were walking each other home back and forth, the next she was making this announcement and then she was gone. To Karachi, I think. A few months later, there was war.

But 1971 in my life was not just about Nafisa and war. That hot May, we moved to a new home in Cuffe Parade, where tall apartment buildings had just come up. A few months later, we travelled abroad and my parents who never treated their children like retards took me along to see the places they always wanted to see. The United Nations Headquarters in New York, for instance. My introduction at the age of seven to the manifestation of one battle-weary generation's dream of lasting peace. A dream that captured and still holds my imagination captive.

Then Nafisa and her migration. Adult discussions about East Pakistan and the refugee crisis were in the air. I cannot claim to have understood much, but I can remember that there were surcharges on many things to pay for the refugees who were flooding West Bengal. We had to put extra stamps on envelopes, I seem to remember. And then Sukhdev's photographs of what he witnessed from his hiding place somewhere in East Pakistan, published in the Illustrated Weekly of India. No one else my age seems to remember them when I ask, but they were striking. My memory of them is not of detail but of the impression they made on me; they remain my first images of the horror of conflict after all these years.

And then war. Our buildings were five minutes from the cantonment and harbour in South Bombay and stood out like sore thumbs. We had sirens and air raid practice, black paper on doors and windows and stories by candlelight. But even the delights of daily story-telling did not obscure the fact that something horrible was going on. Everyday, fathers of schoolmates who were army or navy men were killed or went missing and we would observe a moment's silence. INS Khukri went down, and its brave captain was known to people in school and I seem to remember his daughter also went to our school.

Impossible to forget.

I carry the year with me everyday into every piece of work I do. For another generation, Partition was the defining influence but for me, it is 1971. And I am not alone, I think. I have met at least one person, growing up in Karachi, who could remember the mirror image of my experiences--school shutdown because of war, bombs on places we knew. Both our experiences are nothing at all compared to what thousands go through everyday all over the world, in the name of larger causes and principles, but this little teaser and its memory reinforce my commitment, even when I feel that my work really is irrelevant.


I included details here about Nafisa and school in the hope that somewhere she is surfing the net and finding this, so that on the brink of middle age, we can catch up on where we've walked since those endless excursions of childhood.

More ruminations in the same vein are to be found here. I am looking for links to Sukhdev's work and will add them when I find some that are functional.

Monday, March 12, 2007

From India to Liberia

Indian women from the Central Reserve Police Force guard Liberia's first elected President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

See report here.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

DON'T celebrate Women's Day....

...unless you understand WHAT you are celebrating?

Several years ago, when my Russianist sister would describe the Soviet celebration of International Women's Day with flowers and cards, I laughed in scorn. Then, in the US, I saw the day turn into what Americans call a 'Hallmark Holiday.' Now living in India, the laugh's on me: movies starring leading actresses on TV, fatuous statements about mothers and wives, getting a break from cooking and cleaning... and sales! Now I have nothing against TV, movies, food and shopping, but what happened to the original reason we began to observe--not celebrate--this day?

International Women's Day is a marker in the worldwide struggle for women's rights and equality. It is a day where we remind ourselves of how much remains to be done in our quest to stop this very patronizing and trivializing way that society has of treating us and our struggles.

What have these struggles been? In India, I would say it has been and remains first and foremost, a struggle for survival. Some of the liberal struggles waged elsewhere--suffrage, for instance--have come more easily than the right to life and the right to livelihood.

The struggle for an equal right to life goes back to the campaign against sati, followed by the pioneering efforts of other nineteenth century reformers against child marriage, for widow remarriage (as opposed to sati or a long life in poverty and vulnerability in one of India's pilgrimage centres), and for the education of women. The nationalist movement mobilized women, both in its Gandhian and in its violent, revolutionary streams. From there to the granting of suffrage and equal rights was a small but insufficient step.

Insufficient, because the advent of a consumerist modernity has brought new travails to women's lives. The practice of demanding dowry has now spread throughout the country, and the killing or other abuse of young brides whose dowry is deemed inadequate is known around the country. This is true of female infanticide and its terrible new technology-enabled version, female foeticide (or sex-selective abortion, which sounds euphemistic to me sometimes). Women and girls face many other kinds of sexual abuse, from incestuous rape to sexual harrassment in the workplace to what we quaintly term 'eve-teasing'. All this, plus the residuary category of domestic violence (meaning the battery and torture of wives)--not much reason to celebrate, is there?

We are still splitting hairs over the right of women to participate in politics and be represented in numbers more closely approximating their presence in society. Scarily, even as we do so, the child sex ratio drops, and I wonder where that meeting point will be between equal access and the sex ratio: will the former rise to meet the latter as it is presently, or the latter fall to meet the former as it is presently.

I grew up a feminist because I did not know there was another way for an intelligent, spirited young woman to grow up. As Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender wrote, to me, feminism is the 'radical notion' that women are human. I did not learn feminism in women's studies classes (they did not exist when I was growing up). I learnt it from strong women and men in my family and from my gut response to inequities I witnessed around me. So much has changed in the last few decades, but so little of it for the lives of women--who may now buy washing machines, but not political access or security. So much remains to be done. Yes, I will look at the glass as half-empty because it prevents me from settling in a sanguine fashion into my own comfortable middle class life. It reminds me of how intertwined my fate is with those of other women.

Don't 'celebrate' Women's Day, observe it! If you cannot be part of our struggle with us and support it, ignore or challenge us, but do not reduce this life-and-death battle we wage to a greeting card or a posy or worse, discounts for the very things that shackle us to stereotypes and limits.

An off-the-cuff, point of departure list for reading further:
Radha Kumar, The History of Doing, Kali for Women, 1993.
Sakuntala Narasimhan, Sati - Widow Burning in India, Anchor, 1992.
Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, University of California, 1998.
Raka Ray, Fields of Protest: Women's Movements in India, Minnesota, 1999.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, OUP, 2002.
Mala Sen, Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India, Rutgers, 2002.
Flavia Agnes, Law and Gender Inequality: The Politics of Women's Rights in India, OUP, 2001.
Manushi remains, to my mind, an important resource. It may be accessed here and also here.
and if you will excuse a little self-promotion (hey, it's my blog and I'll write what I want to!):
Farah Faizal and Swarna Rajagopalan, Women, Security, South Asia: A Clearing in the Thicket, Sage, 2005.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

No End to Stupidity

(Though All Good Things Must End)

To pick up on the saga of elusive Indian visas for scholars that I commented on in mid-February, we now hear that a Chinese scholar has given up on getting a visa to do biotech research.

Ananda Mazumdar, Still no luck for foreign scholars: Visa delay makes Chinese give up, Indian Express, March 6, 2007.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Inexplicable 30%: A Postscript

Postscript to "And what if their baby could choose?"

The newspaper that carried that report conducted a poll whose results as of this morning were depressing: 47% favoured sex selection, 47% opposed it and 6% could not decide. By the time the poll closed, this had, happily changed, although not enough: 70% oppose, 25% favour, and 4% cannot decide.

What accounts for this 30%? So much in a poll depends on phrasing. What if the question posed was: is it right to abort a foetus because it is female? Would it have been so hard for the 4% to decide?

So much in a lawsuit depends on the frame of the argument. What is truly disturbing about this is its choice of a right to freedom of choice frame. It subverts the liberal opposition to any modification of the pre-conception and Pre-natal diagnostic tests (prohibition of sex selection) Act by using its language to further a very fundamental discriminatory attitude built into our society. It obfuscates what is to most of us a very obvious choice. And it raises secondary issues about the conditions in which the decision to abort (or in the mirror image way the issue is framed in the US, the right to choose to abort) is acceptable if this is not.

The campaign against female infanticide and foeticide has been waged with varying success across several planes--the legal, the moral, the intellectual and the political. A sampler of this campaign is available here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And what if their baby could choose?

Mayura Janwalkar, Couple wants to determine sex of unborn third child, wants only a son, Daily News and Analysis, February 27, 2007.

This couple have two daughters and want only a son now. They are suing for the right to choose the sex of their third child. Anger is my first response, so I am going with my second and third in this post.

What are the limits to freedom? This classic question manages to take an ugly twist whenever it comes to women: the right to determine the sex of your baby, the right to mutilate bodies in the name of culture, the right to protect girls through depriving them of education and so on.

The limits to freedom lie somewhere in one question that springs to mind when I read this: what if their baby is witness to this and decides, male or female, I don't like these parents, let's get rid of them?

One feels deeply for the plight of daughters (their older one is old enough to understand what is going on) who witness this.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Base-ic Concerns

This morning, the Indian Express reported the setting up of India’s base at Ayni in Tajikistan: India’s first footprint in strategic Central Asia, the reporter wrote. Bases leave more than one kind of footprint in the communities where they are located.

In her 1989 book, “Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics,” Cynthia Enloe describes the relationship between a military base and the local community. The base depends on the community’s acceptance which serves as camouflage and in turn, the community comes to depend on the base for jobs and a ready market. Writing primarily about American bases around the world, she identified the interaction between soldiers and local women as particularly controversial. During the Second World War, it was social interaction between Black American soldiers and white British women leading to interracial romance and marriage that provoked concern. Elsewhere however, it was a different equation that obtained between armies of occupation and women in occupied countries, most infamously, Japanese soldiers and Korean “comfort women” and after the war, American soldiers in Okinawa and Japanese women.

The relationship between soldiers and sex workers resembles a contractual or consensual arrangement; however, as Enloe shows in this book and again in “Maneuvers” (2000), they are deeply embedded in and enabled by an unequal power relationship. Enloe’s work provides examples from British policy regarding overseas cantonments, and asks whether we only see this in the context of settings where those stationed on the base are from a different race than local community members. AIDS has added an extra dimension to this multilayered issue; for instance, the part played by UN peacekeepers in spreading the infection in parts of Africa and the part played by US soldiers in doing the same in parts of Asia where there are US bases has been documented and protested.

There are all kinds of military bases; armies step outside their original homebase in a variety of contexts. The Indian base in Tajikistan, like US bases in so many parts of the world, will serve as an observer mission of sorts, also providing a rapid deployment facility if needed. There are bases set up by armies of occupation, a contentious term that is used to refer both to invading armies and armies fighting insurgencies over a long-term. The Indian army presence in Kashmir and northeastern India and the US army in Vietnam are examples, as is the advancing and retreating Sri Lankan army in northeastern Sri Lanka. Finally, there are peacekeeping forces, whether their presence is mandated by the UN Security Council or bilateral treaties like the Indian Army in Sri Lanka. Accusations of sexual violence are common to all these contexts, and until recently, it was possible to brush them aside as ‘the spoils of war’ which are to be expected when soldiers are stationed away from families for a long time. In 2001, the Sri Lankan army was even reported to have prescribed the impotence drug, Viagra, to injured soldiers to raise their morale.

In the last decade, feminist mobilization has resulted in the acceptance of the idea that rape is a weapon of war. Apologies have been made by the Japanese government for their wartime excesses in the first part of the twentieth century and Pakistani feminists apologized to Bangladeshi women for the actions of the Pakistani army in 1971.

Feminists, but also any other Indians who care that those who act in our name should act in a righteous fashion, must draw attention to these experiences and beyond challenging the rationale for establishing bases abroad, must advocate the adoption and strict implementation of behavioural codes that prevent soldiers from acting in an exploitative way. Human rights advocacy has done that, especially in Kashmir and northeastern India, but beyond redress, punishment of individual offenders and removal of particular laws, we need to press for a renewed appraisal of

(1) how we understand base-civilian relations;
(2) how the establishment defines, investigates and punishes sexual violence;
(3) the degree of transparency brought to such proceedings, and finally,
(4) our own willingness and ability to monitor base conduct in the interests of the community in which Indian bases are located.


Of related interest, a handful of links:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Passport to Fury

Where did I spend Valentine's Day? At the Regional Passport Office, Chennai. And the diatribe that follows is the other side of the reluctance to issue visas to scholars from abroad. Please appreciate, however, that it is written in a far calmer tone than I have felt through most of today. (There is an MSN emoticon for what I have felt: it is a little unsmiling head banging against a wall repeatedly.)

Our day

When we got to the Passport Office at 930 (very late, we were told; it opens at 10), the queues stretched out to the gate. People had come there at 4 am, we were told. We went up to see if there was a Senior Citizens Counter (I was with my mother) or at least a place for them to sit. All the seats were taken, and not just by senior citizens or pregnant ladies. We came back down to join the queue for the Tatkal service (which by the way takes a whole day, and don't let your agent or anyone tell you otherwise). My mother sat on a parapet for a while.

We decided to abandon the queue and went to our travel agent and said, "Forget Tatkal, we can wait." He informed me that I had a problematic case and so my best hope of getting a reissued passport was to do this. So what is my problem? Yellow fever? Al Qaeda connection? Visits to Pakistan? Sex change? No, no, worse. I got my passport reissued the last time in.... Chicago. And not in a shady alley--at the Indian Consulate there. I challenged that but knew it was futile.

So back we went. The people who were standing around me at 945, were inside the building now, but only about ten steps ahead of me and halfway to the first floor. The queue took almost two hours to snake up to the point (on the second floor)where tokens were issued. Yes, this was just for tokens!

Picture this. 11 am and it is getting hotter and hotter. People are getting tired and a little dehydrated and thank god this is not Madras' kattri season! Hundreds in the queue but there are no signs, so there is a current of doubt constantly as to whether people are in the right queue. Can you imagine standing like that for several hours, only to find you are in the wrong place? No signs anywhere. An occasional: this is ECNR queue, no? Or, neenga Tatkal-aa (are you Tatkal)? A little flurry of anxious activity. People descend but the queue doesn't move.

My cousin was in another section today. The laminated portion of his passport came off and he just got his new passport. So he is here to get it stuck or re-laminated again. And as he comes down, he says, "They stuck the same one, what if it comes off?" But as to my woes, he shrugs. No point writing, he says. (The agent earlier quoted had tried to reassure me, "Even people from Hindu have to go through this.") Everyone writes. Everyone has written. Nothing changes. And I want to scream: And that is okay? Why do we accept lower standards in governance than we would in the private sector or everyday housekeeping?

(February 16, 2007: My cousin's replacement label has come off. He was back at the RPO today and asked to return another day to meet a superintendent. For some reason, the Nashik Security Press is unable to create adhesive identity stickers.)

I pass the time calling a journalist friend. But even as I speak to her, I know that she will not write about this. She says she will call a friend. I know that her friend will not write about this. My friend says: tell me if you want this done for you. And my point is: so you and I can always call someone and get things done. But what about the other people in the queue?

My mother and I have already passed up a couple of facilitation offers because our conscience will not permit us to walk past people who got up early and came with their entire extended family to wait! My anger is not that I should have it easier, but that this should not be difficult for anyone. After all, the passport is a symbol of that other 'janmasiddha adhikaar'--swarajya. Although today, I have felt like complete moron for having held on to my Indian passport, even to the scandalous point of getting it renewed in Chicago, the fact is this document means something more to me than a way to leave this country.

Like many Indians, I too come from a family where people made sacrifices and conscious choices to fight for the right--our right--my right--to carry this pocket-sized document with "Republic of India." The Indian passport carries, for me, not just a depressing weight of sombre sacrifice but the entire repertory of dreams that we have collectively dreamed for ourselves. When you make it this hard to get or renew a passport, and raise stupid objections like, "But you renewed it abroad!" I can only make two things of it: one, you are insulting my citizenship (and your own passport services elsewhere) and two, you are looking for a bribe (and therefore, insulting my citizenship).

In the course of this day, I realized something. Most of the people I know--people from my class of Indian society, the somewhat educated, just above the middle class--do not go hang out at the Passport Office all day. But "the queue up in a government office" experience is something that most Indians, most South Asians, I daresay, are quite familiar with. I have three complaints that follow from my experience today and I am blogging about this because I think this is so outside the experience of mediapersons, decision-makers and others who can actually make a change that if I don't, it will just go nowhere.

My experience was just tiring and exasperating. Can you imagine what it must be like for people who don't have a way to shorten queues at all? Or who can barely muster together the property and banking papers they need for a first passport, which will be their ticket to doing better in life? What of senior citizens who don't have children to go with them? And really, what a stressful job for the people working in that office facing that massive crush of applicants every single day, all day?

A three-pointed diatribe

First, there are no clear instructions anywhere. It is not clear where the queues end. It is not clear what they are for. It is not clear whether there is any point to the queues at all. Of course, the website is marvelous. But when you ask travel agents, they give you entirely different instructions and then say, "Madam, we know, we do this everyday." Which they do. There are boards with information apropos of nothing in particular. Why can't we have clearly demarcated lines to follow? The effort to improve customer service in every other sector seems to have stopped short of the rationalization of services in the Passport Office. Either we genuinely believe that Indian government officials cannot perform efficiently at all, in any circumstances, so that we wipe the floor with our expectations of good governance, or we really feel obliged to government for any scraps we get and don't feel entitled to complain.

The arguments for rationalization are innumerable; what are the counter-arguments?
Shortage of labour? In India???
Shortage of skilled labour? In India???
Shortage of space? There is a large lawn outside, and space can be created by optimal planning.
Shortage of funds? Money is never really the reason that something doesn't happen, which brings us to shortage of will? And here the board lights up: we have a winner!

Which brings me to my second complaint: Of course, you know and I know that Indians are also very good at not following instructions and will wander off, circumvent the line, move the posts. We crowd at counters. We use cellphones under signs that prohibit them or ask for silence. We have absolutely no civic sense, and no sense of common courtesy. But while we are wild children in wild places like government offices and railways stations (and increasingly, the India-bound gates at Heathrow Airport), we are also models of good behaviour in nice stores like Westside, in good performing arts centres and in the presence of disciplinarian spiritual teachers like Satya Sai Baba.

It seems to me that both administration and citizenry are content with imposing on each other a bar that is so low as to be virtually non-existent. This brings me to my final complaint: around me, people were so accepting of this unacceptable situation. The travel agents we consulted said, "It is like this." When I asked why, they said: "Crowd is too much." But the crowd was arguably larger in the railway booking centres and they have really cleaned up their act. Then they said, "These are the rules." I asked why the procedure had gotten harder when it should have become simpler. Then they said, "Madam, it is like that. You cannot expect your ideas here." But I am from here. I am also an Indian. So I asked, if your travel agency and my office can run efficiently and rationally, why can't this office? No reply. Just a shrug and acceptance. And that is what tips my temper over the edge.

Some of it has to do with the fact that all of us depend on fixers and the rhetoric of changes in governance have far outstripped the ground reality of registrar offices, passport offices and the like. Even if there is no need, builders and travel agents and others who interact with these offices everyday have a well-oiled network of easers and fixers and they do not have enough confidence in the will of the political leadership in the country to initiate and implement genuine reform. So they keep this machine well-greased, and people who ask too many questions slip in the slick.

The media, in India and elsewhere, has been celebrating the citizen journalist all year. I am coming around to the view that this is a fictitious character modeled loosely on a large number of individuals in love with messaging services on their cellphones. That is all. We like to vote and this is even easier than standing in the sun (in another queue) and voting during elections. For the rest, chalega, we are like that only.

Well, I am not like that only. I want to live in a country where the administration seems to think through the regulations it creates, where service-oriented offices are oriented to serve, where the smallest of services can be accessed transparently even before I think about exercise my Right to Information. I am driven, capable, efficient, thoughtful and have a social conscience; I think I deserve a government that is the same way, don't you?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Back in Alberuni's India (But did we ever leave?)

About a thousand years ago, a scholar wandered into India in the wake of an army. He found many things to see and learn, but was dismayed to find the spirit of inquiry diminished and xenophobia masked as exclusiveness among the locals. What has changed in a thousand years? From this series of reports in the Indian Express this week, just the speed with which xenophobic anxiety is expressed--it takes much longer now!

We complain bitterly about the long queues of visa applicants around US and European Consulates and about the piles of documents it takes to apply for those visas. But when scholars apply for visas to undertake research under a binational educational exchange programme (yes, India is also a partner in this exchange), we drag our feet and our sacks of paperwork. Having benefited greatly from the openness and hospitality of other societies where I have been able to study, conduct research and attend conferences, I find this response to genuine expressions of interest and intellectual curiosity baffling, embarrassing and counter-productive.

Travel, study and research abroad are some of the best ways to learn about another country, and it is in that country's interests to facilitate the visits of foreign tourists and scholars. While tourists can come and go at a level of superficiality so that sometimes our only benefit is economic, we can expect long-term returns from welcoming visiting scholars. Fulbright scholars for instance, typically live where Indians do. They shop in the same bazaars. They learn Indian languages or musical instruments or dance. They work in Indian colleges and think-tanks. They learn slowly to see us as we do and then to see the world as we do. They will of course, remain American, but they will be able to understand why we have certain values and why we are guarded on certain issues and why some of the people they cannot understand are met with so much warmth by us. And almost always, they keep coming back and they send their students as well.

Sometimes, scholars do come to study things that we consider less innocuous than the Natyashastra or Jnaneshvari. But how large is that category? Does studying socio-economic change in Dharavi seem as threatening as studying foreign policy in the Vajpayee government? Is the latter more of a threat or less to Indian national security than a history of Indian naval doctrine?

This way of thinking is objectionable on two counts. First, a restrictive category cannot include everything other than hairstyle trends in South Calcutta. It should perhaps place limits on a researcher aspiring to be a participant observer in present-day National Security Advisory meetings or Cabinet discussions. But is there any reason to limit even the study of Indian naval doctrine or nuclear doctrine? Do we not trust our own functionaries and offices to withhold classified information or access to particular sites?

Second, if we are a confident, democratic society and an ancient civilization that has survived so much, why are we afraid of academic dissertations and scholarly books? I have done field research in Sri Lanka, and this entailed wandering around asking questions about the ethnic conflict and xeroxing kilos of articles. I remain very grateful to the people who took the time to patiently explain their perspectives to me and to share with me their libraries and their experiences. My understanding of events in Sri Lanka builds on that foundation of access and that glimpse into their experience of events around them. Nothing I read, no legion of Indian or American "experts" on Sri Lanka could have given me that. And my visit seems to have had no adverse impact on Sri Lanka!

We want Indians (or Pakistanis or Sri Lankans or others) in foreign locations so that they will raise our profile and speak for who we are. We will not however let others in to learn the same from us on our turf. A foreign student or scholar is an investment, not a threat. Those of us who have studied or spent time abroad can testify to the bonds we build, not with the heads of state and heads of intelligence in those countries, but with the people who study with us, people who work around us, people who live in our neighbourhood and have children the same age as ours. These are the bonds that colour our feelings about the other country over time. Even as we criticize its foreign policy or its cuisine, we cannot erase from our consciousness (or hearts) the many people who have touched our lives. Welcoming foreign scholars and students is a way to give them a chance to connect their lives with ours in this meaningful and lasting way. We need to understand that their research product is only one small part of what this win-win interaction will yield.

To be in 2007, to be in this globalized, instantly networked village called the Earth and to be making an argument which was not new in the mid-1970s (the last time India more or less barred foreign research scholars from working here) nor even new in Alberuni's time, is shameful. What was new in Alberuni's time and is no longer new is our unwillingness to engage with people from the outside, and to learn from them and let them learn about us. Whether it is paranoia or arrogance that drives our response, there is no good place for us to go from here.

PS: Another comment on the same issue.


Reports and editorials from the Indian Express on the visa clearance issue will be linked here as they are published.

Incredible India: Are we a liberal democracy? Do we want to become a global academic center?, Editoral, Indian Express, February 12, 2007.
Colour-blind research, Editorial, Indian Express, February 15, 2007.
C. Raja Mohan, Welcoming foreign scholars, Indian Express, February 15, 2007.

Shubhajit Roy's reports:
Are you an American scholar? You aren’t welcome in India, February 11, 2007.
Help us: Fulbright scholars to Rice, February 12, 2007.
Fulbright board wrote to three govt depts, none heard, February 13, 2007.
More US scholars stranded: PIL, cotton, ‘dangerous’ subjects, February 14, 2007.
When it comes to clearance for a Fulbright scholar, even an Indian passport is no help, February 15, 2007.
‘Given the choice of re-applying... I chose to walk’, February 17, 2007.
UPA, eat your liberal heart out: NDA welcomed Fulbright scholars whatever their subject, February 18, 2007. (Comment: Note the preponderance of religion-related topics; what does that say both about the NDA and the future of scholarship about India? On the latter, back to Max Muller?)

Government responses:
Vinay Jha, Govt brainwave: red & green channels for scholars, subjects, February 14, 2007.
Vinay Jha, Decision: red, green channels for scholars, their subjects, February 16, 2007.
Shubhajit Roy, On China research green channel: Tibetans’ dilemma, Stalin Ghost, February 17, 2007.

For all the restrictions India places, India wants liberal visa regime, Pak says NO, PTI/Indian Express, February 16, 2007.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Right thoughts, right speech, right society

This morning I read two articles that brought home to me, not for the first time, how incurable and insufferable the snob within can be.

The first is an article about a new manual for Indian Army wives. It tells them how to dress, how to speak and how to carry themselves. I urge you to read it because even the most superficial attempt to summarize or comment further will send me on a rampage. For this moment, I am choosing to find this amusing and anachronistic, just so I will have energy for the rest of the day. But one tiny thought must be expressed: all of us making a case for the importance of considering women in our contemplations on security, look no further, it's all in her manners!

One person says in the second article that he gets tired of responding to the racist attitudes embedded in the polite conversation addressed to blacks. This article takes on those nice things people think they are saying about those whose competence surprises them, only because they actually expect very little from their class, caste or colour.

Anjali Puri, Minding Mrs. Manners,, February 12, 2007.
Lynnette Clemetson, The Racial Politics of Speaking Well, New York Times, February 10, 2007.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blood and Irony

Yesterday, on Gandhiji's death anniversary, the Indian National Congress hosted a two-day conference on satyagraha. Those who attended included Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Mohammed Yunus, Kenneth Kaunda and Lech Walesa. Maldivian President Gayoom was also there.

Yes, Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was also there.

President Gayoom has been in power for close to three decades, seeking re-endorsement through referenda where he receives an unbelievable percentage of votes. The first time one encounters this fact, one is impressed. But learning more and more about the Maldives, another picture emerges.

The Maldivian constitution is set up so that the President appoints the people who nominate the candidate that the people may endorse for President. For years, the political process did not admit dissent or dissenters. In the last four years, beginning with political exiles and other Maldivian expatriates, a democratization movement has acquired enough momentum that Gayoom's regime has reluctantly introduced some changes: there are now opposition political parties, there is a human rights commission and there is enough space in the public domain for dissident media to speak, although the risk of censorship, arrest and deportation remain. Some long-standing political prisoners were released. Still, life in Gayoom's Maldives is not easy.

Many of these good works followed the 2004 tsunami after which some rehabilitation assistance was tied to political reform. European governments have on the whole shown more concern about events in the Maldives than any of the atoll-state's neighbours, whose absence of concern must be attributed either to a realist view of the world or a realistic view of their own shortcomings.

Last November, the most prominent of the opposition parties, the Maldivian Democratic Party, tried to organize a peaceful rally in Male and invited Maldivians from all the atolls to come to the capital. Pre-emptive arrests followed.

A boat that left Addu with participants for the rally was harrassed and then intercepted. Its passengers were placed under arrest in the island prison that Maldivians refer to as the 'Dhoonidhoo Hilton,' which is infamous for the use of torture and intimidation. Medical facilities and legal counsel were denied them. Some were placed in solitary confinement. The rally was called off. (Incidentally, the Coast Guard boat used in this operation was a decommissioned Indian Navy vessel gifted by the government of India to the Maldives.)

Gayoom's regime is associated with many things, but probity, non-violence and tolerance are not on that list. Opposition leader Mohammed Nasheed compares it to “Count Dracula being in charge of the blood bank.”

So who invited him? This is not a state occasion but a private one, and so there was always a choice. To answer "someone who is either clueless or uncaring" is too uncharitable for the occasion. A more optimistic guess is that it is intended to be an act of 'Gandhigiri.' We can only hope that Maldivians who live with this regime's actions everyday will find it in themselves to forgive and forget the Indian elite's willingness to disregard Gayoom's track record.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Women in Politics

Sujata Dutta Sachdeva of the Times of India asked me two questions this week in connection with an article she wrote on women in South Asian politics. First, why is it that women in politics do not devote as much attention to development issues as we expect? Second, why are they judged so harshly for their corruption?

The answer to both questions lies in the expectations we impose on women who enter politics. These expectations are not merely unjustified but also unfair.

The general expectation is that women, as mothers, will have a natural inclination for policy fields relating to nurture (development, health, child welfare and animal welfare) and as homemakers, will excel in hospitality-oriented ministries like tourism. There is nothing wrong with being interested in these spheres and they are undeniably important. But if everyone thinks they are so important, why don't the Arjun Singhs, Laloo Prasads, Dayanidhi Marans and Arun Jaitleys lobby for these appointments?

The gendered division of labour in most homes finds its way to policy-making circles, and the men do the issues that are valorised as serious (defence, foreign affairs, finance, internal security) while women keep the home clean, healthy and hospitable (just women's work, you know!). Just as all women do not have an abiding passion for housework, and there are women who do not feel they must be mothers, so there must be female politicians for whom these ministries are just a place to serve time before they can get a really important government or party post.

And why not?

This is the perfect segue to my answer to Sachdeva's second question. Why should we expect women who enter politics to live and act by a higher morality when the game is by and large dominated and won by those who are conniving and corrupt? Is it because we think women are somehow morally superior? Or is it that we do not expect women to be ambitious and able and willing to take action to further their ambitions?

I think both sets of expectations are traps--and women see variations of them in every professional field. Pedestals are prisons and being idolized is being frozen in stone. Place a woman on a pedestal, telling her she is delicate and angelic, and somewhere you are also telling her: you are too weak, possibly too slow-witted and certainly, I don't expect that you will seriously challenge my right (as a man) to play and win the game. Tell us that women are worshipped as mothers in this civilization, but don't tell us that what that means is that we could not possibly be interested in the intricate detail of defence budgets and tax reform.

If this topic seems like old hat to you, you haven't been paying attention to the tone in which news about Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa gets reported and discussed. Sonia Gandhi is now too powerful to get the same treatment but there are shades of it in the way people respond to Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy.

As the US prepares for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign and South Asians gleefully point out, "Been there, done that!" it is a good time to reflect on the degree to which South Asia's women leaders represent a genuine empowerment of South Asia's women and a good time to pay attention to how we handicap these politicians by telling them how much we expect of them.

Postscript: Am I advocating or condoning corruption and poor governance? No, not at all. I am advocating the woman politician's right to ambition and to an interest in all spheres of policy-making. And I am saying, if you don't like the level of corruption you get, change the game so that bad behaviour is penalized across the board.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Politics-as-usual is boring!

This morning's Hindustan Times carries an article by Vir Sanghvi in which he says something I have guiltily felt for a long time. Indian politics is boring, he writes. I want to start this blog off by saying something sacrilegious for political scientists: politics is boring. Mr. Sanghvi speculates that this may be due to the fact that the present cabinet is largely made up of non-descript MPs and hopes that it is due to the pre-occupation of Indians with their own lives.

I am trying hard to remember when it is that I lost interest in Delhi (or any state capital) politics. Political courtships and conspiracies are only of interest, I have long suspected, to those who gain by being seen as having the inside scoop. A snobbish, but still 'Page 3,' variety of interest in politics. Of course, it is always possible to list many reasons for why we should care about some of these things--accountability being an important one. Personally, however, I am mostly really bored.

What keeps me excited about the field I have chosen to be in and what keeps me reading the newspaper--its most constant supplier of questions and perspectives? Stories like this one in today's Times of India:

Sharmila Ganesan, Mumbai's hidden panchayats, Times of India, January 14, 2007.

Initiatives like this immediately pique my interest. Are there others like this? Do they really work as well as the reporter says? What are the phone conversations between the 'Slum Police Panchayat' officers and the Police Commissioner like? It is challenging to imagine all the changing power equations in this setting. The Panchayat members vis-a-vis their families and their community. Even the local police station. The Police Commissioner--what happens when another officer comes along who is less comfortable with this democratic arrangement. When Panchayat members can call the Commissioner directly, what happens to the authority of the local police station? Does the work of the Commissioner increase in the interest of decreasing the work of the police stations?

On the front page, the Foreign Minister has gone to Pakistan and some things have been said and done. This is supposed to be my area of interest and expertise. But what is exciting to me is tucked away elsewhere, one small story about one small experiment, raising dozens of questions.

To start with...

I have been reading blogs for a little over a year now, fascinated by the medium and the writers it draws. I too write. And when I see books or blogs, there is a part of me that thinks: I should be writing, just like this.

There is another imperative at work. I am a political scientist by training and writing for the press is as much a sign of professional arrival in South Asia as writing for peer-reviewed journals is elsewhere. Or so it seems to me, when people prod me and say, why aren't you writing for the editorial pages of national newspapers? Now, there are lots of reasons why; many have to do with me and some have to do with the national newspapers! Those can wait to be aired in another space!

There is a via media in tone, style and approach between academic (or even consultancy) writing and creative (for want of a better term) writing that I do, and somewhere in that middle-space is the category comprising opinion-pieces and commentary. As I read newspapers, I lament the fact that good writing and thoughtful analysis rarely coexist (of course, there are exceptions!). My own risk-averse streak has kept me from negotiating this middle-ground. What if I am as bad? What if I can't write? What if I have nothing to say? What if I can't sound authoritative? What if, what if, what if?

Hence, this blog.

As a platform to attempt this negotiation.
As a way around the isolation of independent scholarship.
As a discipline.

It's just me. Seeking my voice.