Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The absurdities of Indian Archaeology: The Temple of Gloom and the ASI

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

The Archaeological Survey of India which was established more than a century and a half ago has earned a name for itself and  its history has been ably documented by the Prime Minister's daughter, Professor Upinder Singh in a fascinating book, The Discovery of Ancient India Sir Alexander Cunningham who was the first archaeologist to uncover the material past of India realized that there were no written records on which a reconstruction of the historical archaeology of India could be based and so he turned to the Chinese pilgrims who visited India in the early medieval period in search of Buddhist manuscripts. It was left to another great archeologist, Sir Aurel Stein to discover the letters written by some of these early pilgrims in monasteries all along the famous Silk Road. Archaeological discoveries stimulated anb interest in the past and it was only a short hop step and jump to "nationalism" underpinned by a robust historical base in which India was imagined in myriad forms and one of the forms was that of a nation state.  History and Archaeology were inscribed in the very start of the long and tortuous journey to "nationhood" as articulated by politicians like Nehru and Jinnah. Apart from the political uses of an "ancient" past to justify Indian "nationhood" there was also the "medieval|" past to legitimize the quest for nationhood by the Islamic minorities of the Gangetic plains. Further, the discovery of the early urban civilizations in the Indus River Valley led to the appropriation of the ealy urban culture to the so called Dravidian cultural strand of India whose most vehement exponents were the Tamils of the deep south. One enterprising IAS officer, Mahadevan, even created cult following for himself by "reading" certain symbols on the seals of the Harappan civilization as Tamil characters and this man before he slipped into dotage even "deciphered" a seal as the representation of the Tamil god, Muruga. Therefore, Indian Archaeology is full of twists and turns and one is not totally surprised at the present rather strange developments.

On the banks of Ganges there is the non nondescript temple illustrated above. The temple has been the scene of a most bizarre treasure hunt.  A local god man declared that 1000 tonnes of gold was hidden in the temple and he claimed that the last king of the region had appeared in a dream and instructed him to dig out the gold. In any other part of the civilized world this story would have been dismissed with the contempt it deserves. Indian Universities like the infamous Jawahar Lal University which was in the forefront of the so called Ramajanmabhoomi Controversy have maintained a stony silence over this alacrity with which the UPA Government dominated by the Congress pary ordered the Archaeological Survey pf India to excavate in the area suggested by the godman. The last king of the kingdom was hanged by General James Neill when his forces reconquered the area with the help of soldiers from Madras. And so the king is a martyr to "Indian Nationalism".  The last week has seen hectic activity at the site. The Geological Survey of India used ground penetrating radar and declared to anyone who cared to listen that there were solid metal objects under the thick vegetation lenmding a degree of credence to the story of the god man, Om Swami as he is styled. A congress member and a Minister in the Cabinet of Man Mohan Singh instigated the ASI to order an extensive dig at the site of the temple. The result is that a major historical site has been vandalized as a consequence of governmental actions and decisions. No one has ever heard of an archaeological  excavation taking place anywhere in the world on the thin foundation of a senile god man. The frantic pace of digging has not unearthed a single piece of copper and the site,a  potentially important medieval site has been utterly devatated.

The Government of India bypassed all regulatory agencies governing the management of archaeological sites. At the whim of a Minister who happened to be a follower of the senile god man the excavation was ordered. Not a penny was found as there is no hoard buried there. Already the smae god man has spred stories of another treasure waiting in a place closeby the Unnao, Fatehghar. The upcoming Parliamentary Elections which is certain to see a landslide in favour of the Opposition has made the Government of India undertake this ridiculous excavation as the snile god man enjoys a strong support among the backward castes of the region. Indian Government is in the news all for the wrong reason: scams, scandals and now the mad cap treasure hunt.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

China and India: Why India must reset the Sino-India Relations

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

In history we will seldom find an instance of two civilizations that existed peacefully and enriched each other getting enmeshed in seemingly intractable problems as is the case between the two Asian giants, China and India. Though I have not been to China, I can say with some certainty that China has progressed both intellectually and economically well beyond what has been achieved in India. With Chinese Universities making the cut both in the Shanghai and Times list and the visibility that Chinese academics have acquired on the world stage, I can say with a degree of vehemence that  China offers valuable lessons and India in the most short sighted manner is ignoring the hard earned lessons that China has to offer. The objective of inclusive growth with economic transformation has been achieved in China and India is still struggling. Though there has been some reduction in the level of absolute poverty, India's social sector is still weak and when it comes to the girl child, India's record to say the least is just horrendous. In India the Press makes a big issue of the One Child norm in China and hold this up as an instance of authoritarian rule. The fact is that after the Emergency, India just abandoned family planning as a growth strategy, and India's burgeoning population is only adding to the problem. While coercion is not required, public education is certainly possible. And India neglected to do this. In terms of health,China has a better coverage of health services and Indian hospitals are struggling to keep up with the demand. The privatization of health services through the Insurance schemes has only added to the woes of the average India. India can learn lesson from China and instead of rushing to the Americans, India has a good example at its very doorstep.

The Indian intellectuals make much of India's democracy and nothing can be more erroneous than this. India democracy has essentially degenerated into the rule of criminals who threaten and extort the votes from the electorate. Massive use of money power and muscle power has made Indian democracy a laughing stock of the world. The Supreme Court of India had to intervene to ensure that criminals who are convicted cannot continue in office. Even after this the ruling Congress Party sought to overturn the judgement by making changes in the law through a Presidential Ordinance. The reluctance of the President to sign the document saved the day for India. As far as I can make out, China too has problems stemming from politicians using their clout to make money. The Rule of Law that exists in China ensures that such politicians do not get immunity for their actions and this is a lesson that India can learn.

The construction of high speed railway is an area in which China is the world leader and can be justly proud of her achievement. In India,  even the Rajadhani Express rarely crosses 150 kms an hour and so Indian Railways can use the technology developed in China to improve its services. The New Delhi-Beijing Railway link in within the reach from a technological point of view, but we need the Indian leaders to rethink their policy toward China. Unfortunately, Indian political class particularly the Congress has bought into the American doctrine that China needs to be contained and India in an effective partner. The Indian political leadership needs to be educated on the implications of this absurd doctrine. The Americans are using India to irritate China and unfortunately, Indian political class is unwilling or unable to see the reality. The sale of the two nuclear reactors to Pakistan by China is the direct fallout of the policy of civil nuclear cooperation with the USA. The fact is that until this day the USA has not sold a single reactor to India and China has already signed a deal with Pakistan. Indian Civil- Nuclear Deal with the USA was touted as a great diplomatic victory for Man Mohan Singh, the prime Minister, while the sad reality is that India gave up its military programme without any tangible gains in return. The Nuclear deal has become a symbol of India's embrace of the US strategic doctrine which hopes to put diplomatic pressure on China on every possible front. It is not in India's interest to fall into this trap.

The issues between India and China are not strategic differences or even rivalry on an ideological level. Both Asian civilizations have had a similar past and history has shown that China has always regraded India as a great civilization whose message was that of the Great Buddha. Instead of building up on the historical foundations of Indian and Chinese civilizations, India from the time of Nehru undertook to confront China on every issue. The 1962 War in which India was soundly beaten should have been a wake up call to India and should have resulted in a rethink of the policy. Instead a myth of "great betrayal" was created and India became a prisoner of a self created delusion. Tibet had always been a part of China and it was the British under Lord Curzon who sought to make it a part of the circle of states surrounding the Indian territories of British held India. It is amazing how Nehru did not recognize the historical bonds between China and Tibet and continued to follw the colonial policy while pretending to be the elder statesman of Asia.

Even as Man Mohan Singh makes a visit to China, I think India can learn two things from Chimna (1) reform higher education and (2)  Railway Construction. In both these areas China has an edge and I hope the Indian leaders show wisdom is learning from the experience of China.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century; A Review

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

Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century: AN Archival Exploration
Bidisha Chakravarthy and Sarmistha De
Niyogi Books, New Delhi 2013

Calcutta is a fascinating city. Its reputation as a City of Joy may be farfetched but as a historical site, Calcutta is the most interesting city of India. If New Delhi is the graveyard of empires, Calcutta has remained a city of culture, cinema, Durga Puja, Communist factional rivalries, naxalite violence and of course, literature and education. From a sleepy hamlet on the banks of the Hoogly, Calcutta became in the nineteenth century the capital of the British Empire in India. The Regulating Act of 1773 vested the Governor General in Council with supervisory powers over all the three Presidencies and during the course of the nineteenth century the city began to grow both in size, in population and in terms of civic and administrative infrastructure. The book under review examines in detail the transformation of Calcutta into a major metropolis of modern India and is a contribution to the cultural and social history of modern India.

The two authors are archivist in the State Archives of West Bengal and have scoured the archives for interesting bits of information about the growth and transformation of the city. In modern historiography of Bengal associated with Barun De, Sumit Sarkar and Sabyasachi Bahattacharya urban history does not have a place. The Subaltern perspective adopted by Sumit Sarkar privileged the social history over cultural history. In the this volume the two authors, both trained as historians have recreated life in Calcutta during the nineteenth century. In 1911 the capital was shifted to New Delhi and Calcutta lost the prominence it once had in the previous century . Human interest stories culled from the archives abound in this volume. The intervention of the English Administration to prevent Sati is ably documented in the book using an anecdote. The attempts made by the erstwhile rulers to ensure a modicum of civic sense in the city is demonstrated by citing the health regulations enacted by the municipal authorities The growth of print culture and the attempts made to regulate the book trade are also studies. As the city grew in size, the hazards of fire also increased and we have a short chapter giving the history of the Fire Service in the city. A city of the size and reach of Calcutta will certainly have its dark underbelly and the authors have dredged from the archives some interesting details of the white slave trade in the city.

The most interesting part of the book are the numerous illustration drawn from the archival sources and contemporary journals and newspapers. The lavish use of documents from the Fort St William Records adds to the attractiveness of the volume. I enjoyed reading this book and wish I could write something similar about my city, Pondicherry where I live and teach.