By Sara Zubair
Imagine, if you will, that a story is a creature. Human, animal, or something else, it doesn’t matter. Just a creature that is being asked to do the author’s bidding. (You are forewarned that this analogy could fall apart at any point; there is no need to get attached to it.)
In the first and longest of four parts of this particular story called Latitudes of Longing, by ShubhangiSwarup, the creature is not merely acquiescent, not merely obliging, but positively, beautifully devoted. Sentences have a lyrical quality, at times soothing like water at the lake’s edge, at others, startling like the ocean spray. Thoughts appear like sparkling gems: “Islands are mindless chatter in a meditative ocean.” The words force you to sit up and take notice, savour the images they evoke. The story guides you through the Andaman Islands with the intrepid, mild-mannered, Oxford-educated botanist, Girija Prasad, and his clairvoyant wife, Chanda Devi, who sees ghosts and talks to trees. Without other characters to distract us, we are allowed to assimilate gently like one of the many insubstantial ghosts that reside on the islands. Like them, we observe this unlikely couple’s relationship grow in the delicate balance between science and metaphysics, each gradually learning the other’s language as they understand the language of the islands they inhabit. “The life of an equal couple in the latitudes of longing and the longitudes of trepidation has hitherto been a rare, undocumented phenomenon — like a whale giving birth in Antarctica or white elephants mating in South Asia.”
The story allows us to care deeply for this couple and, eventually, their child. It shows us the microcosm of their world and the pull that keeps them on the islands — the spirit of place — as well as the indescribable shock of earthquakes, tsunamis and the macrocosmic, temporal and spatial expanse of Pangaea. And then the story moves on.
While quite at home in the Islands in the first part, the story is less so in the second — called ‘Faultline’ — set in the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma (now Myanmar). Here we meet Plato, son of Mary, a mostly silent caretaker at the Girija-Chanda household. Mary’s search for her son, who was taken away from her when he was an infant, moves the story slowly forward. Yet it repeatedly stalls on Plato’s musings and hallucinations as a prisoner who is relentlessly tortured by the junta for inciting revolt among university students. Here, the story, too, seems inclined to rebel as it takes on more overtly political tones and an erratic pace. The infant gecko embalmed in a piece of amber is a symbol of too many things all at once: of past and future, East and West, of the speed of geological upheaval and the trickle of resin, of movements and stasis, seeing and unseeing, and of Burmese politics. The burden is too much to bear for one so small: having withstood the collective weight of time and the surface of the planet, it collapses under the weight of meaning and metaphor.
In parts three and four — ‘Valley’ and ‘Snow Desert’ — the story decides to go off with Plato’s friend, Thapa, to Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu, for a while. Haunted by a loss, Thapa finds solace in finding stories and caring for Bagmati, a stripper at a bar. Ammonites and nautiluses drift through the narrative, “Premonitions of our past … Ghosts of our future”, but seem far less potent in their presence, sacrificed to a more stilted narrative voice.
The story then leaps to a part of the Karakorams that is neither Pakistan nor India, where we are witness to an awkward octogenarian romance between village grandfather, Apo, and Ghazala, the mother of a Kashmiri trader — awkward in part because it reads too much like a young person’s idea of an octogenarian romance; not insensitive, but perceptibly inexperienced. To quote Apo, “For the youth these are tragedies of love … At my age, it is all a comedy.” There is also the hurried appearance of the scientist grandson of Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi, bringing things full circle to remind us that our Earth both destroys and nurtures, obliterates and preserves.
In its latter sections, the connections and relationships between characters become thinner and more tenuous, perhaps as a deliberate echo of the geographical distance between the Andaman Islands and the Karakoram mountains, but in the process, rendering them distant and unrelatable. Geological metaphors, planetary calamities and the epic scale of time reflected in the minutiae of the planet that were so poignant initially, now seem repetitive at best, contrived at worst. And the ease with which the supernatural wove through the lives of Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi is all but lost as the story proceeds: the cheemo or Yeti is as unsure of its role as we are of why it is there and whether the story is much improved because of it. Lyricism interspersed with political commentary sit uncomfortably in each other’s company, the former seeming a mere formality to maintain stylistic coherence without its earlier success.
To return to the analogy, the story has slipped away from the author. Any attempts to rein it in, tie up loose ends, reintroduce tropes and characters or curb its tendency to verbosity, seem insufficient. It is wilful and has too much to say about too many things without letting one’s mind or eye rest at any point, forcing us to lose focus. Nor is it able to recapture the musical refrains of its beginning. After such a unique and promising start in the islands, the story crumbles somewhere in the faultline, and by the time we reach the later sections (if you will pardon the pun) it completely loses the plot.
Latitudes of Longing
India’s perilous obsession with Pakistan
By Nissim Mannathukkaren
Come Indian elections, the bogey of Pakistan has overwhelmed the nationalist discourse in the shrillest manner, with the Prime Minister and other Ministers’ relentless branding of the Congress/Opposition as ‘anti-national’ and as ‘agents of Pakistan’. Further, the Prime Minister even made an unprecedented threat of using nuclear weapons against Pakistan.
As a country born of the two-nation theory based on religion, and then having to suffer dismemberment and the consequent damage to the very same religious identity, it is obvious why Islamic Pakistan must have a hostile Other in the form of a ‘Hindu India’. But what is not obvious is why India, a (much larger) secular nation, must have a hostile antagonist in the form of Pakistan.
It is widely recognised that the fulcrum of the Pakistani state and establishment is an anti-India ideology and an obsession with India. But what has scarcely received notice is that India’s post-Independence nationalism has been equally driven by an obsession with Pakistan. Of course, this obsession acquires a pathological dimension under regimes, like the present one, which thrive on hyper-nationalism and a ‘Hindu India’ identity.
But, this hyper-nationalistic urge to ‘defeat’ Pakistan and to gloat over every victory, both real and claimed, is ultimately self-defeating, and comes with huge human and material costs. Much of these costs are hidden by jingoism masquerading as nationalism.
Words often used regarding the Pakistani state’s actions, even by critical Pakistani voices, are ‘delusional’ and ‘suicidal’, and rightly so. For, no level-headed state would seek to attain military parity with a country that is six and half times larger in population, and eight and a half times bigger economically. HussainHaqqani, the Pakistani diplomat and scholar, compared it to “Belgium rivalling France or Germany”. Pakistan’s vastly disproportionate spending on the military has been self-destructive for a poor nation.
In 1990, Pakistan was ahead of India by three places in the Human Development Index. In 2017, Pakistan was behind India by 20 ranks, a sad reflection of its ruinous policies.
More critically, the Pakistani state’s sponsorship of Islamist terror groups has been nothing less than catastrophic. What the world, including India, does not recognise is that Pakistan, ironically, is also one of the worst victims of Islamist terrorism. In the period 2000-2019, 22,577 civilians and 7,080 security personnel were killed in terrorism-related violence in Pakistan (the number of civilian/security personnel deaths from Islamist terrorism in India, excluding Jammu and Kashmir, was 926 in during 2000-2018).
The fact that Pakistan has suffered much more than India in their mutual obsession cannot hide the equally serious losses that India has undergone and is willing to undergo in its supposedly muscular pursuit of a ‘no dialogue’ policy with Pakistan.
Wars and military competition produce madness. Nothing exemplifies this more than India-Pakistan attempts to secure the Siachen Glacier, the inhospitable and highest battle terrain in the world. India alone lost nearly 800 soldiers (until 2016) to weather-related causes only. Besides, it spends around ?6 crore every day in Siachen. Operation Parakram (2001-02), in which India mobilised for war with Pakistan, saw 798 soldier deaths and a cost of $3 billion. This is without fighting a war. Add to this the human and economic costs of fighting four wars.
Granted, the proponents of India’s muscular nationalism who want only a military solution in Kashmir might close their eyes to the killings of some 50,000 Kashmiri civilians and the unending suffering of Kashmiris, but can they, as nationalists, ignore, the deaths of around 6,500 security personnel in Kashmir and the gargantuan and un-estimated costs of stationing nearly 5 lakh military/para-military/police personnel in Kashmir for 30 years?
Ten years ago, Stephen P. Cohen, the prominent American scholar of South Asia, called the India-Pakistan relationship “toxic” and notably termed both, and not just Pakistan, as suffering from a “minority” or “small power” complex in which one is feeling constantly “threatened” and “encircled”. Tellingly, he argues that it is the disastrous conflict with Pakistan that has been one of the main reasons why India has been confined to South Asia, and prevented from becoming a global power.
Here, one should ask the most pertinent question: why does India compete with Pakistan in every sphere, from military to sport, rather than with, say, China, which is comparable in size and population, and which in 1980 had the same GDP as India? (China’s GDP is almost five times that of India’s now.)
Of course, emulating China need not mean emulating its internal authoritarianism or its almost colonial, external economic expansionism. On the contrary, it is to learn from China’s early success in universalising health care and education, providing basic income, and advancing human development, which as AmartyaSen has argued, is the basis of its economic miracle. It is precisely here that India has failed, and is continuing to fail.
Therefore, despite India being one of the fastest growing major economies in the world since 1991 (yet, only ranked 147 in per capita income in 2017), its social indicators in many areas, including health, education, child and women welfare, are abysmal in comparison with China’s. Worryingly, in the focus on one-upmanship with Pakistan, India’s pace in social indicator improvement has been less than some poorer economies too. The phenomenal strides made by Bangladesh in the social sector are an example.
Here, a look at the military expenditures is revealing: while India spent $63.9 billion (2017) and Pakistan $9.6 billion (2018-19), Bangladesh spent only $3.45 billion (2018-19). Only a muscular and masculine nationalism can take pride in things such as becoming the fifth largest military spender in the world, or being the world’s second largest arms importer. The bitter truth hidden in these details is that India, ranked 130 in the HDI (and Pakistan, 150), simply cannot afford to spend scarce resources on nuclear arsenals, maintaining huge armies or developing space weapons. Besides, in an increasingly globalised world, military resolution between a nuclear India and Pakistan is almost impossible.
The more India, the largest democracy in the world, defines itself as the Other of Pakistan, a nation practically governed by the military, the more it will become its mirror. Any nation that thrives by constructing a mythical external enemy must also construct mythical internal enemies. That is why the number of people labelled ‘anti-national’ is increasing in India. India has to rise to take its place in the world. That place is not being a global superpower, but being the greatest and most diverse democracy in the world. That can only happen if it can get rid of its obsession with Pakistan.
Symbol of New (Hindu) India?
By Sanjeev Ahluwalia
BJP president Amit Shah is technically correct to say that SadhviPragya Thakur, one of the accused in the September 2008 Malegaon (Maharashtra) bomb blast case, who is on bail, has a right, under our liberal electoral laws, to contest the elections. It hardly matters that she voluntarily claimed being part of the Hindutava forces which had pulverised the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and that an FIR has been registered against her by the Madhya Pradesh police on the orders of the Election Commission.
A galaxy of BJP leaders headed by Lal Krishna Advani, who went on to become deputy prime minister, and Hindutava firebrands Version 1 from the 1990s era — SadhviRithambra, VinayKatiar, Hari Vishnu Dalmia, et al — were criminally indicted for conspiracy but let off by a CBI special court in 2001. The Allahabad high court upheld the order of acquittal in 2010. But curiously, the Supreme Court directed that the case be revived in April 2017, under the NarendraModi government.
To be honest, there was little reason, back then, not to indict both Kalyan Singh, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress Prime Minister. Culpability for dereliction of duty runs deep and inefficiencies in the judicial system help gaming transgressors.
Our laws consequently acknowledge this judicial gap and do not bar a candidate from political office, even though serious criminal charges have been drawn up in court against the person and a trial is under way.
But that does not fully explain why the BJP chose her. After all, Bhopal is not just any other seat. It is the capital of Madhya Pradesh and she has been pitted against Digvijay Singh, a former chief minister of the state and a senior Congress leader.
More to the point, isn’t she out of sync with the BJP government’s soothing signature tune of “Sabkasaath, sabkavikas” (with everyone, for everyone)? Does this signal a major change in stance and hitherto is revisionist social policy likely to overshadow the imperative for economic growth?
Pragya Thakur has no qualms about evoking her mystical powers to “damn” (curse) her opponents, demonstrating a conflation between her private well-being and that of all Hindus — a distinction which is necessary in those holding public office. But ascetics and mystics live by the code of “bhakti” — a submersive ecosystem, in which the followers are one with the guru. This leaves no space for the rule of earthly, common law.
Bhakts believe the spiritual power of an ascetic’s curse causes irreparable harm. Such pervasive, blind faith begs the question — should India have lawmakers who exult in evoking their spiritual powrs to shield themselves from the law?
Given these rough edges, what compelled the Modi-Shah team to field SadhviPragya from Bhopal? Two motivations suggest themselves.
First, electoral strength breeds hubris. Nominating Pragya Thakur sends the message that a new, assertively Hindu India is on its way and those with different views should make way.
Hinduism is resilient because it absorbs and subsumes other beliefs. Think Tamil Nadu 70 years ago. Anti-Brahmanism, rationalism and primacy for Tamil culture and language — versus Hindi — drove the atheist Dravida movement to its peak. Today, with political power firmly with the Tamil middle castes, ritualistic Hinduism is resurgent in Tamil Nadu.
Hinduism facilitates Sanskritisation — a religious version of the Stockholm syndrome, where the marginalised empathise with and seek to emulate their oppressors, thereby perpetuating the status quo.
Even the Congress Party has succumbed. The symbols of ritualistic Hinduism — special prayers at temples and endorsements from Hindu religious leaders — are the norm. This is canny, since Muslims and Christians have nowhere else to go, at the national level — though the BahujanSamaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh; Trinamul Congress in West Bengal; TelanganaRashtraSamiti in Hyderabad, the Communists in Kerala and the AamAdmi Party in Delhi offer classically secular, regional alternatives.
An alternative driver behind Pragya Thakur’s nomination could be sheer desperation, in the absence of a NarendraModi wave, unlike 2014. After all, the party lost Madhya Pradesh along with two other cow belt states to the Congress only a few months ago during the state Assembly elections. Fielding the Sadhvi is sure to rake up Hindu resentment against the Congress for subscribing to a counter narrative of “Hindu terror” around the 2008 bomb blasts. The credibility of our police agencies has sunk so low that in the public’s perception, the “caged parrot” syndrome of ruling party capture, overrides the merits of any police action.
But multiple poll surveys, thus far, do not validate significant electoral loss for the BJP. The most recent endorsement comes from SurjitBhalla’s new book Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019. He forecasts a simple majority of 274 for the BJP on its own. Lord Meghnad Desai, a British peer of Indian origin, also endorses a clear win.
NarendraModi is no one’s tool. Were he to succeed, his game would be to tame the tiger that he is riding. This is risky. But a more grounded strategy could well emerge, which seeks to rid Hinduism of its caste-based fractures; infuse the religion with modern concepts of universal human rights and worry more about generating income and wealth for all, rather than protecting India from without whilst dividing it from within.
The Modi-Shah duo’s dodgy electoral tactics are not new. Encouraging social divisiveness; kitchen cabinets to bypass government structures; centralisation of authority; a quasi-presidential form of campaigning and the systematic decimation of potential opponents — all these have all been used by other parties in the past. Banyan tree leadership is hardly unique to today’s BJP.
What is new is the blinding speed with which the Modi-Shah team has executed their strategy of building a “New India” — a narrative which promises to change social endowments and norms in ways that have never visualised previously. Status quoists will resist this seismic makeover. Beneficiaries will support it. Make up your mind, dear reader, where you belong.
‘The TINA trick’
By Anil Dharker
This state of despondency arises from many factors, the major one being the disappointment with the performance of NarendraModi’s government (bhakts always excepted).
Two abbreviations crop up in any conversation about the elections. Both give a dispiriting picture of the mood of the nation. The acronyms are NOTA and TINA, which as we all know, expand to None Of The Above and There Is No Alternative.
This state of despondency arises from many factors, the major one being the disappointment with the performance of NarendraModi’s government (bhakts always excepted). In 2014, there was a genuine Modi Wave caused by disillusionment with UPA’s drift and its alleged corruption; in direct contrast were Modi’s enticing promises of “development” and rooting out corruption and black money. The disasters of demonetisation and GST, rising unemployment and the unaddressed tragedy of agrarian distress has taken the sheen off Modi’s many promises.
NarendraModi knows; everyone in the BJP knows; thinking party supporters (bhakts always excepted) also know, that repeating the same promises again and again doesn’t fulfil them — action does — but implementation has either been negligible, or poor. This is why not one single speech of Modi talks of his government’s performance. It’s a strange thing to hear a prime minister going to the people for re-election without a word about five years of his government. Instead, he talks about his “muscular response” to Pakistan and he talks about Hindutva in a demagogic way reminiscent of Bal Thackeray, using words which a chief election commissioner like T N Seshan would have acted more strongly against.
Sadly, the EC is not the only institution the Modi government has eviscerated. If you really wanted to know what the BJP government has achieved in its five-year term, it’s this: Every institution, the Enforcement Directorate, CBI, the police in BJP-ruled states, the Income Tax department… name them, and they do the government’s bidding, even if many of their actions on the eve of elections are clearly political in nature and meant to influence the electorate.
This is where the TINA factor comes in. Even BJP supporters disillusioned with NarendraModi ask: If not Modi, who will be PM? Rahul Gandhi? Mamata Banerjee? Mayawati? They find all these options unacceptable. Unfortunately, people have short memories. Political turmoil brought in prime ministers as diverse as Morarji Desai, V P Singh, I K Gujral, Chandra Shekhar, DeveGowda and Charan Singh. Not all of them were a disaster. In any case, all of them were in the chair for just around a year each (except Desai, who had two years), far too short a time to judge a prime minister’s performance. More than that, it’s important to note the classic definition of a prime minister in a functioning democracy: He is the first among equals in the council of ministers. Would anyone in the present cabinet dare say that of NarendraModi? No wonder the BJP’s slogan for 2019 is “phirekbaar, Modisarkar”. And its manifesto is replete with photographs of Modi, significantly even on the cover. Apart from re-emphasising that Modi’s council of ministers consists of lightweights; the slogan underlines the fact that the BJP government is Modi, Modi and Modi. That’s how the TINA factor gets reinforced as part of the BJP’s planned campaign strategy.
Contrast that with the Congress’s slogan, “abhoga NYAY’, a play on the Hindi word to mean justice as well as highlight the party’s ambitious social welfare programme, with which it hopes to make an impact on the elections. It also removes any hint of a personality cult in the party, although clearly, Rahul Gandhi is the prime force in the election campaign. Perhaps, it’s also a tacit admission that the public perception of Rahul Gandhi as an unsuitable candidate for prime ministership hasn’t changed, although the man himself has grown impressively into a leadership role. But you need an open mind to notice that, and an open mind doesn’t seem to be a common attribute of our electorate, especially its urban component. The more educated you are, the more you are likely to hold on to your prejudices.
An interesting point to note is that even Indira Gandhi, a towering personality if ever there was one, used the slogan “garibihatao”, and not a personality-centric one. But that concealed the fact that she ruled her government and her party with an iron fist. Another interesting point to note is that in his constant attacks on “The Family” and “Dynasty”, Modi hasn’t said a word against Indira Gandhi. For all his visceral hatred of the Nehru-Gandhis, Modi is strangely silent about Indira: There’s obviously an unspoken and sneaking admiration there. When you think about it, it’s really not surprising. Indira Gandhi was the government, and no one else mattered. NarendraModi is the government, and he has made sure no one else matters. For all those enamoured of strong leadership, it might be salutary to remember its perils: Mrs Gandhi imposed the Emergency, she nationalised banks (a disaster in the long run), she abolished privy purses (a constitutional guarantee), she subverted most of our institutions, including even the judiciary, and she used departments like Income Tax to get even with political opponents. Aren’t the parallels uncanny? On the other hand, low-key, self-effacing personalities like LalBahadurShastri and Narasimha Rao made excellent prime ministers; in fact, the former had he not died so tragically early, may have lived to be our best PM ever.
NOTA, of course, is an expression of dissatisfaction with the whole political process, and who can blame people when we see the way our electioneering has been conducted, with its abuse and personal invective? But NOTA is not an option; the option really is this: Better not the devil we know than the devil we don’t, because the latter may turn out to be not a devil at all.