Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Romila Thapar and her critique of Y Sudershan, Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

In his, My Quest for the Middle Ages, Jacques Le Goff the celebrated French historian writes: History emerges from the questions posed by historians.  Unfortunately, Indian historiography is so caught in the trap of personalities that even the most celebrated historians of India, and Professor Romila Thapar is undoubtedly one in the galaxy, is not able to come out of that trap. Even since 1969 when India Gandhi and her regime decided to create a "secular" history for India, the writing of Indian history has degenerated into a never ending game of name calling and label sticking: Communal, Reactionary, Obscurantist, Ultra Nationalist etc are some of the label bandies about and a great historian like Romila Thapar is not expected to lend her authority to this charade. The fact is that India became a Nation in a historical process that is both complex and controversial. It was with an air of misguided triumphalism that Nehru declared in his speech that that at the "stroke of the mid night hour when the world sleeps India will wake to life and freedom". In reality India awoke to the most horrendous nightmare of violence on both sides of the border and the triumphalist rhetoric of Nehru has become the credo under which two generations of post Independence historians wrote history and taught a Nation centric history to their innocent acolytes in Universities such as JNU and Delhi University. Anyone who questioned the wisdom of the ruling paradigm was dismissed as a communal RSS tainted pseudo scholar. Therefore sensible questions about Indian's march to freedom were not asked and it was left to a Western scholar, perry Anderson to expose the "communal" politics inherent in the politics of the Congress party. Therefore instead of blaming the so called Communal forces, is it not possible to view the Congress  politics especially after 1939 as being fraught with dangerous consequences for the future of Indian nation, making Partition a possibility.

Romila Thapar has in a recent issue of India Today (July 21st 2014) criticized the appointment of Prof Y Sudershan Rao to the post of Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. If she addresses the larger issue, whether the State should be in the trade and business of funding History, I might say that there is merit in her critique. However, her criticism is directed at the present Chairman at a personal level. She says that he is not "visible" in terms of research. The fact is that "highly" visible historians converted ICHR into a bailiwick of historians who in the name of :secular" history only wrote history that upheld the political settlement of 1947. The fact that India's freedom came with a fatal flaw was conveniently ignored. The attack mounted by Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Harbans Mukhia nearly 45 years back in a little pamphlet, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History is still the battle cry under which these historians gather the usual suspects. It is tragic that after six decades of Indian Independence  historians still bicker over the very idea of India. Y Sudershan Rao apparently has an interest in the textual basis of Indian history and this is sufficient for the scholar to declare his interest trivial and irrelevant. In her book, The Past Before Us, Thapar herself has used literary text for the purpose of reconstructing the different configurations of historical consciousness in early India. Of course, every historian has the right to ask the questions he or she chooses to ask and I do not think that the questions posed by one set of historians can be dismissed tout court.

Another criticism launched against the present Chairman is that he seeks archaeological validation to the epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. In fact it was during the regime of Nurul Hasan that the Archaeological Survey of India started a project of identifying and excavating sites associated with the so called epics. The discovery of the Painted Grey Ware Culture and the Northern Black Polished Ware was taken to represent some sort of archaeological horizon of the cultures represented by the epics. In any event, these historians remain silent when regional cultures such as Tamil region start using literary sources and in this case the historically promiscuous Sangam Texts for the purpose of historical reconstruction. There is no place for apocalyptic rhetoric like "turning the clock back" etc when all that is being done is to appoint the administrative head of a Government of India body.

Indian historiography has come a long way inspite of the shenanigans of some historians. And the house of History has several rooms and there is place for everyone in that mansion. I do not know why there is attempt made to stifle voices of dissent. Of course, History is a serious endeavour and unless there is attempt at denying or falsifying the past, no historian should be declared an exile from mthe sacred land.  

Monday, July 14, 2014


A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

The State of Israel owes its origin to the crimes of the Europeans, the Germans who massacred around 6 million Jews during the last two years of the Second World War. Of course this horrendous crime had to be expiated and the Americans and the British made the Palestinians pay for the crimes of their fellow white men. Israel is fast losing the sympathy it has rightly won for its several outstanding achievements: its civic programme, its educational institutions, its fairly successful practice of democracy. However, in its treatment of the displaced Palestinians, Israel is showing its true colours. Even John Kerry, the US Secretary of State in an unguarded moment called Israel an Apartheid State. one in which racial discrimination is legally enforced. The Arabs living in the territories are treated as second class citizens with limited access to education, employment or health. And the Right Wing parties like the Likud are further aggravating the situation by opposing the two state solution. The cycles of violence unleashed by Israel as retaliation for the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers from one of the settlements that has sprung up in the occupied territories is both disproportionate and beyond the limits of civilized state conduct. Without unleashing such fire power against the people of the Gaza Strip, Israel could have dealt with the crisis in a more balanced manner. In any event, the Israelis too extracted their revenge when they killed a young boy, by beating him and burying him alive. The silence from the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, the President of USA, Barack Obama is disquieting. Both Obama and Kerry are not willing to even condemn  the aerial attacks on Palestinian civilians.

The Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel and the Israeli media justifies the full blooded attack on unarmed civilians by saying that Hamas deserves to be punished for firing rockets. It must be stated that Hamas rockets have not caused a single casualty in Israel while in the current round of bloodletting, the Israelis have killed 166 Palestinians and wounded more than 1000 civilians. It appears that the motive behind this state sponsored massacre is to weaken the resolve of the Palestinians in the Gaza strip who are supporters of the Hamas. Therefore the killing of civilians is part of a strategy pursued by Israel and if the Bosnian Serbs can be tried for killing Muslims during the Balkan Crisis of the 1990s. by the same logic the Israeli political leadership is also culpable. The Arab League, the organization of autocratic Oil Rich state which legitimized the invasion of Iraq and Libya are keeping quiet. Saudi Arabia which is usually very eloquent on issues dealing with Muslim affairs is keeping a deathly silence over this entire issue. It appears that the Arab world has decided to allow Israel to solve the Palestinian Question like Hitler solved or attempted to solve the Jewish Question. The UN has lost its legitimacy before the entire world due to its inability to prevent USA from invading Iraq in 2003 and most people now believe that UN is just a facade behind which the white nations hide to carry out their atrocities on non white people. Unfortunately the discourse on Palestine centers around the muslim identity of the people forgetting the fact that a considerable number of them are Christians.

In 2009 when Israel invaded Gaza Strip it killed more than  hundred people and wounded around 1, 500. With this kind of violence unfolding can the World be silent.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"The Case for Books": Reading in the Digital Age

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Reading has become increasingly dependent on technology. The book under review by the celebrated historian Professor Robert Darnton is an interesting analysis of the ways in which the advent of digital technology has changed the reading practices of people. The joy of reading the printed book cannot be experienced by one reading the most thrilling novel on kindle. The sight and smell of a book is a delightful experience and only those who savour the joy of reading can understand what we lose by shifting to the digital mode.

Robert Darnton, the historian who gave us such classics of Cultural History as The Business of the Enlightenment, The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History, has been a prolific writer who has published extensively on topics such as Censorship in the Ancien Regime and the attempts made by the Bourbons to police the literary world on the eve of the French Revolution. His approach to the subject essentially derived from the pioneering work of Lucien Febvre who wrote the Coming of the Book, an early attempt at book history. Since then, thanks largely to the efforts of Robert Darnton and Elizabeth Eisenstein, the history of print and the cultural impact of print has emerged as an important area of study, Robert Chartier contributed to the field and he brought "reading practices" to the fore. In a printed book, the codex, the eye is trained to move from left to right and the page is taken in as a unit. In the case of the Old Scrolls which had to be held in the left hand and unscrolled by the right, reading was limited to at best a short paragraph or so. The emergence of Printing made possible a rapid and almost instantaneous dissemination of texts creating the first pre digital Information Revolution. Ann Blair has been writing about how the scholars in the early modern age coped with the explosion of information brought about by print technology. In Too Much to Know Blair has documented the difficult beginning of scholarly apparatus which culminated in the humanists of the sixteenth century inventing the Footnote as a central metaphor of critical historiography as Anthony Grafton has documented in an interesting book.

Robert Darnton, the Librarian of Harvard University, was responsible for the University participating in the Google project of digitizing books from all the important libraries of the World. The Google Book Search which enable historians to search libraries which they could not dream of even seeing in their wildest dreams, is a noble attempt at making knowledge  to everyone everywhere in the Globe. The fears that Google is bebt on turning public assets into private corporate profit has turned out to be unfounded and we are all beholden to Google Book Search for making some of the rare books available at the click of the mouse. Robert Darnton has shown in the book under review the complicated legal issues that had to be negotiated before the Google Book Search took off. Historians from countries such as mine will remain grateful to Google Book Search for making rare books available. India has launched its own version of Google by launching the Digital Library of India which contains a number of interesting books.

The Case for Books is an excellent study of the importance of books in the cultural landscape of the civilized world.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Game of Thrones in the East: USA is promoting instability in the region

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Playing the Game of Thrones in the real world is not easy and USA is finding it increasingly difficult to be relevant in the Asian region. I do not want to use the label Asia-Pacific Region as the very term legitimates US domination or attempted hegemony over a part of the globe which is increasing feeling uneasy with US ambitions. The misguided and some would even say illegal war launched against Iraq has now led to the worst humanitarian crisis is the contemporary world and added to this is the unending misery of Palestinians who are facing daily the violent interventions of Israeli forces in search of 3 kidnapped settlers. The spiral of violence is now out of control and the world is spinning fast toward a resolution, one way or the other. US involvement in the politics of the region lies at the very heart of the problems that Asia faces at the present moment.

 Syria is a prime example. USA was very keen to intervene in a domestic power struggle in order to overthrow Assad who has held the country together and the Baathist regime has ensured social and economic development. It is the only country in the region in which Christians still feel safe and have a sense of involvement and participation. John Kerry and his boss sought to arm Syrian rebels knowing fully that the rebels were brutal and were sympathetic to al-qaeda. In the process the Syrian rebels morphed into the ISIS, an organization which is even more extremist than the al Qaeda and its affiliates like Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Middle East demands political goals which are quite distinct from American interests. American goal os the security of Israel and the oil from the region and both can be met without unnecessary and callous violence engendered by arming one group or the other in the name of "human rights" and "identity politics". The policy of favoring the SHiaas over the Sunnis in Iraq contibuted in no small measure to the success of the ISIS. And once the new state stablaizes, the politics of the Middle East will change dramatically. And in the policy of containing the ISIS, USA has to seek support from Iran and that itself should indicate how shortsighted and self defeating American war aims were alll along.

USA is trying to open yet another front against China over the Diaoyu Islands. These disputed Islands lying very close to the mainland of China have long been diputed and Japna lays claim to the Islands they call Senkaku. USA is stoking the flames of war by provoking Japan to press its claims to the Islands. Territorial disputes are usually negotiated and China has shown great statesmanship in dealing with all its territorial disputes. US and Japan have security arrangements which exclude involvement in territorial disputes and yet John Kerry is ever engaged in making provocative noises. China is the emerging power in the East and USA cannot wish it away.

And it is the same story in Ukraine. The regime in power does not want to respect the cease fire called by the rebels in the East and USA is only interested in stoking the flames of civil war and unrest in the region. Russia has legitimate historical claims in the region and USA must learn to respect those rights. The Russian speaking population of Ukraine regards Russia as its protector and this time around Russsia is not inclined to look the other way as it did in the 1990s when the Serbian crisis unfolded.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

One Month of the Modi Sarkar: There is Hope

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Narendra Modi came to power promising "change for the better" or as he prematurely declared. Acche din agaye. (Good time have arrived, a parody of the Kingfisher tag line.) Cynics might say that there is nothing new in what Narendra Modi has done. Let me list out the new departures in just 30 days initiated by the Prime Minister:

1 Make the bureaucracy accountable. The round of meetings that Narendra Modi has had with senior secretaries underscores the fact that Modi expects the bureaucracy to monitor the policies and programmes initiated and report fearlessly. All too often in India, politician are able to suborn the bureaucracy for their own corrupt purposes and the fear of transfer or worse Enquiry makes the senor officers crawl when they are only asked to bend. Modi has taken a decisive step toward making the bureaucracy accountable for the policies of the Government. He met the senior bureaucrats, the Secretaries to Government without the presence of their departmental Ministers, and in this he has taken a leaf straight from the statecraft of Margret Thatcher. This move has been widely commended in India. Another innovation is that Narendra Modi has not permitted anyone associated with the earlier regime to be appointed on the personal staff of his ministers.

2 The emphasis on  Infrastructure and Investment is very clear and Narendra Modi is  expected to announce a series of measures to facilitate economic development. An Indian Sovereign Wealth Fund that will be traded in Wall Street is one measure that is bound to be a hit in the western world. Narendra Modi has already taken steps to bring in China as a partner  in India's Infrastructural development. China is expected to invest in at least four SEZs and that is really a huge step in the right direction. Again China is expected to partner with India in the development of high speed Railways.

3 The crisis in Iraq has been dealt with in a statesmanly manner. The envoys of all counties in the neighbourhood of Iraq have been requested to use their good offices in the speedy  repatriation of Indians stranded in Iraq. The fact that Narendra Modi has chosen to seek the support of West Asian powers suggests that he would like to seek regional solutions for regional problems. USA is the real cause of all the suffering in the region and cannot pretend that it is the solution to the problem it has created. Narendra Modi's trip to Bhutan, B2B, was a great success and if he follows this pattern, I am sure that Indian isolation in the South Asian region can be broken.

4 On the economic front, prices are still rising and food inflation is also high. Narendra Modi has instructed the Food and Agriculture Minister to crack down on hoarders and the State Governments have  been instructed to enforce the decision. There is the added challenge of a failed Monsoon. The Met Department has already said the the El Nino Effect would result in a 50% shortfall in the rains. The food security is being strengthened and imports will be done without fanfare in the press.

The Modi Sarkar inherited a broken economy and a wasteful government and there are signs of the situation turning around. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Tale of Two Vice Chancellors: Kalyani Mathivanan and Dinesh Singh are poor representatives of academic leadership

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Indian higher education is poor and the fact that not a single Indian University finds a place in the top 500 universities of the world is but a reflection of the abiding poverty that resides in the ports of our universities. I once had as the Vice Chancellor of the University where I teach a man who was dismissed for forgery and after he took charge he indulged in every crime that I used to refer to him as Chancellor of Vices. His virtues, if any were hidden from public view but his vices and women were put on full public display and the whole University Administration was made an accomplice to his misdeeds. He even sold the red sand from the University campus when the East Coast Road was constructed and he demanded a cut from every contract and a commission for every job/ appointment. With such singular characters around, I sometimes wonder that it is a miracle that Higher Education has survived, albeit is a shrunken form. To cut a long story short the quality of men and women who run our Universities is poor and their intellectual apparatus in serious state of disrepair.

Two Vice Chancellors have been in the news for all the wrong reason and their "achievements" illustrate the lowest level to which Universities in India have shrunk: Madurai-Kamraj University and University of Delhi. Dr Kalyani Mathivanan, the Vice Chancellor of Madurai-Kamraj University hails from a very powerful political family in that she is the daughter in law of Shri Nedunchezian a former Education Minister in Tamil Nadu. Without any academic background this lady was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of Madurai-Kamraj University. She was only a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English in a private college in Chennai before her appointment as VC. The Madras High Court has struck down her appointment on the ground that she is unqualified to hold the post as she did not fulfill the UGC mandated 10 years experience as Professor. This is not the first incompetent Vice Chancellor but the first to be told so by a judicial pronouncement and this judgement sets a precedent. There are Vice Chancellors in several universities who are equally incompetent but Dr Kalyani Mathivanan has earned the dubious distinction of having her appointment set aside. Unfortunately, the appointment of Vice Chancellors are made on the basis of extra academic considerations and I hope that the new Government of Hon'ble Narendra Modi sets a good example.

The case of Dr Dinesh Singh is different. He sought to reform Indian undergraduate education by introducing the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP). Even though he was able to bull doze his way in the Academic Council of the University and the Executive Council there was opposition to the FYUP right from the inception of the programme. The UGC did not utter a word in protest then. After the new Government came to power the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) took up the matter and forced a roll back. For nearly 10 days there was chaos in Delhi University. The UGC did succeed in its effort of rolling back the FYUP. This raises a larger issue: Can political parties impose their decisions on the Universities thereby undermining the so called autonomy of the Universities.

The real reason why Universities are in a state of absolute disrepair is because the Governments appoint third rate politicians who use their positions to enrich themselves and govern the Institutions with total disregard for rule, procedures or even basic decency. I hope lessons are learnt from these two sordid incidents.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Intelligence Bureau Report on Indian NGOs and its implications

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

The Intelligence Bureau of the Government of India at the behest of the previous regime investigated the activities of nearly 50,000 NGOs and has submitted its Report. The contents are shocking and demand immediate attention. It is well known that Indian academics thrive under foreign patronage and the advent of post colonial theories and perspective have given added strength to the perception that India is best studied at the fault lines of Indian society--language, caste, identity and religion. This perception is quite in contrast to the methods adopted to study Western society which are predicated upon the efficacy of individual choice, rationality, and humanitarian world view. Mehrotra, a noted philosopher has critiqued this approach in his book Breaking India in which he has drawn attention to the political and strategic implications of these post colonial perspectives. Unfortunately the Indian academic and intellectual community has completely surrendered its independence of thought to Western models of social and political action that any critique of the dominant paradigm is dismissed as "communal'" reactionary" or "obscurantist" tendencies. It is left to the Intelligence Bureau to draw attention to the dangers posed by Western research on India, especially those that excavate at the fault lines of Indian society.

Indian democracy is really a wayward experiment in callous nationalism and anarchy. Under the garb of research on social sciences and environment western interests both economic and political have been able to insinuate themselves into the academic and political agenda of the country. It is worth noting that the National Security Agency in the USA ran unhindered a programme of maximum surveillance in the country without any obstruction except for some ritual protests from the civil libertarians whose protests only reinforce the notion of freedom in the USA. In India, on the other hand human rights groups have been quite successful in ensuring the release of naxalites who have been waging war against the Indian state and has claimed more than 50,000 lives in the past decade or so. The uproar over the Vinay Sen arrest shows that there is concerted effort to shield the ideologues of the naxalite movement and the prime movers are all well entrenched in the Indian University system. This sort of blatant misuse of academic rights and freedom is not possible in USA or for that matter any Western democratic country.  The large scale immigration of Bangladeshis from Bangladesh into Assam is causing social and political tension and in spite of legislation empowering the Government of India to detect and deport illegal migrants, the Government of India is unable to implement the law due to the propaganda of human rights NGOs whose only aim is to ensure that there is enough tension in the region. In the Garo Hills which has India's largest deposit of Uranium the environment based NGOs are ensuring that India does not mine the uranium and the country is forced to depend on the Nuclear Supply Group for its stock of uranium. Unfortunately  these pro active NGOs are very successful in their disruptive activities in India and they are not that effective in Western countries.

The funding received by the NGOs in violation of Indian law is a cause of serious concern. The Report makes it clear that during the course of the past decade or so more than one lakh crore rupees was received by Indian NGOs and with liberalization it has become possible for NGOs to maintain foreign accounts and operate them from India.Dr Udayakumar, an alumni of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, (this blogger took his Ph D in History from the same University) has received more than 40,000 US dollars and his obstructive agitation over the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam has become notorious in India and abroad. It is certain that NGOs are receiving funds for launching agitation and propaganda against the energy security policy of India.

Greenpeace, a well known NGO whose ship the Rainbow Warrior was bomber by French Intelligence Agency a few decades back has been involved in a slew of measures against the development of the economic infrastructure in the country. Any development results in displacement and that cannot be an excuse for the status quo. By attempting to organize the workforce involved in the Infrastructure projects in the country, the Greenpeace is aiming to sabotage the rather halting steps India is taking toward development especially in the road and power sector. It is worth noting that all these NGOs which have been studies receive their funds from USA and Western countries.

What is to be done:

1 All NGO funding must be routed through a National Agency which will disburse and monitor the use of foreign funds.
2 All political and agitational activities must be severely discouraged and if foreign funds are linked to agitational and political activities then the NGO must be proceeded against as per law. The corruption within the Indian system has made NGOs as lawless as the political parties.
3 Indian Government must set up a Organization to study the activities of the NGOs and
4 The audited statements must be submitted to the dedicated Organization and India must also monitor the flow of foreign funds.

The situation is alarming and action must be taken.