Monday, February 22, 2010

Ram Sethu: Factfile

What is Ram Sethu?

Ram Sethu (or Adam’s Bridge) is a chain of limestone shoals that links Rameswaram (TN) to Mannar (Sri Lanka). Various estimates place the length between 30 Km and 48 Km and up to three kilometres wide.

Who discovered it?

It was discovered by NASA space missions including the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in February 2000. The mission beamed photographs that clearly showed a bridge-like link in the region.

Have studies been done to date the shoals, since there is a school of thought that the bridge was built during the period of the mythological Lord Rama some 17 lakh years ago?

No study or carbon dating has been done so far. NASA has clarified that in the absence of detailed studies, its images cannot be taken as proof of any man-made bridge.

How many studies have been done on the proposed Sethusamudram project?

Since a channel route was first seriously mooted by A D Taylor in 1860, some 13 studies have been conducted. Of these, five were after India gained independence. These were done in 1956, 1967, 1981 and 1996 (two studies). The eight others were conducted between 1861 and 1922.

Sethu Samudram: A bridge too far

Rajesh Singh

While the Union Government drags its feet on a possible realignment of the Sethusamudram route that would save the Ram Sethu (Adam’s Bridge), experts are demanding that the ship channel project itself be scrapped as it has become a white elephant. The Centre is locked in a controversy over the proposed alignment, with the Supreme Court recently admonishing it for delaying a final decision on the issue. Meanwhile, the initial project cost has spiraled from Rs 2400 crore in May 2005 to more than Rs 4500 crore now. And it does not promise to stop at that.

But the Centre clings on to its pet scheme and is awaiting sanction from the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure and the Public Investments Board for the revised estimate. It is also hoping for a green signal from the Supreme Court (which had halted work two years ago) and also from the Expert Committee it had set up to study realignment of the sea canal route.

Even if clearances are received the dredging work carried out so far at an enormous expense of nearly Rs 800 crore may have to be re-done at even higher costs since silting will have undone the previous effort. Moreover, dredging would not be a one-time affair; experts say round-the-year dredging would be needed to maintain the 12-metre depth of the proposed canal. This would be an additional recurring expense.

Several people have questioned the financial viability of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project regardless of the alignment. They have pointed out that only nominal time and money would be saved – and that too by some vessels on certain routes – in taking the proposed path connecting Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar between Sri Lanka and India. They say these minor savings would not be an incentive for ships to take the Sethusamudram lane, adding that the conclusion on the scheme’s feasibility in the Draft Project Report prepared by L & T-Ramboll Consulting Engineers was not based on ground realities.

Janata Party chief and former Union Minister Subramanian Swamy said the project should be terminated. “It is completely flawed and a financial deadweight. It must be done away with. It is not just a question of realignment, the Sethusamudram project itself makes no business sense,” he stated.

Swamy said ports such as Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu could be developed into a container hub to enhance maritime business in the state. “The proposed canal can handle vessels with a maximum 30,000 dead weight tonnage (DWT). Most ships are above that and would not be able to use the route. Only ships owned by former minister T R Baalu’s family members will benefit since those vessels are under that tonnage!” he remarked.

Expressing surprise over the project’s continuance, he said, “I wonder why successive governments have persisted with this failed project. I had even written to the then NDA government that the Sethu idea should be buried for good. The UPA regimes have had their own petty motives to push ahead. There are other more sensible ways to develop maritime business in Tamil Nadu.”

Swamy incidentally has been in the forefront of the campaign to halt the project and evolve an alternative path to promote marine trade in the state. The apex court had halted work at the Ram Sethu in August 2007 on an application filed by Swamy who argued that the project was rooted in “illegalities.” He told the court the government had not even considered other alternatives nor done proper studies before clearing the project.

Echoing similar sentiments, AIADMK Rajya Sabha member and parliamentary party leader V Maitreyan said the project was an “economic disaster.” He stated, “When the project was launched by the UPA government we were in power in Tamil Nadu. Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched it in Madurai. But we were not a party to the launch.”

Maitreyan said expert studies had showed the Sethu to be “economically unviable,” adding the issue was no longer one of realignment. “Realignment is irrelevant. Our party is opposed to the project itself,” he stated.

According to a report by infrastructure economist Jacob John and published in a leading magazine, the Sethusamudram Corporation will have a maximum pre-tax internal rate of return (IRR) of just 4.5 per cent if it decides to charge a ship as canal tariff the entire sum that the vessel will have saved by taking the route. (The savings figure has been arrived at through a formula.) On the other hand, if it chooses to attract more vessels by offering a lower tariff of 50 per cent of the cost saved, the IRR would be a pathetic 2. 6 per cent!

The report goes on to say that while ships coming from Europe and Africa are expected to comprise 70 per cent of the projected users, their savings would be very low when compared to “coastal” vessels emanating whose origin and destination are both Indian ports. Yet, the “non- coastal” ships with minimal savings will need to pay the same tariff as those who savings are considerably larger. This would deter the non coastal vessels from taking the canal route. Since the canal tariff is likely to comprise as much as 60 per cent of the project’s earnings, failure of “non coastal” ships to take the canal route would be disastrous for the corporation.

John also pointed out that the time-saving projected by taking the canal route was not very significant for the “non coastal” ships. In his report, John commented, “The repeated claims of the project that it will save up to 30 hours of shipping time, sounds suspiciously like a shoe sale that offers a discount of up to 50 per cent. Like the discount sale, where the offer is probably for a few items in the store, the savings of up to 30 hours are valid for just a single journey: between Tuticorin and Chennai.”

Moreover, while the total distance that a vessel has to travel may get cut down by the proposed channel, the ship’s speed too gets reduced on the route since the waters are shallower. Thus, while a trip from a port in Africa to Kolkata through the existing route is 3217 nautical miles, it would be reduced to 3112 nautical miles by the proposed route. John calculated that at the end the vessel would have actually taken 3.5 hours more by the new shorter route!

When the draft project was first prepared the cost of debt financing the project had the Indian rupee loan at eight per cent and the US dollar at four per cent. But interest rates have significantly gone up since then, as a result of which the credit costs would be considerably higher now, further denting the financial viability.

Like Swamy, who suggested developing Tuticorin port as a major container hub to boost marine trade in Tamil Nadu, John too offered an alternative. He proposed the government simply offer “subsidies to all ships that reach the Indian east coast after going around Sri Lanka.” The subsidies, he added, could be funded from earnings that the government may receive by placing the total project cost amount in a fixed deposit or investing it in some other financially sound project.

Another report, ‘Socio-economic Impact of Sethusamudram Project’ by Kannan Srinivasan of The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala, too concluded that the project’s economic benefits were hard to identify. “It is difficult to see any economic benefit from the project immediately. Based on the data available, the economic feasibility is not established by the reports,” it stated.

The haste with which the government kicked off the project contrasts sharply with the manner it has dragged its feet in settling contentious issues. Forced by the hue and cry over the manner in which it was handling the project, the Centre in June 2008appointed a panel headed by noted environmentalist R K Pachauri to study a realignment that would skip the controversial Ram Sethu or Adam’s Bridge region. Seventeen months down the line, the matter still hangs in balance, prompting the apex court to question the delay.


Where did Saraswati river originate from?

It originated from Har-ki-Dun (valley of Gods) glacier in Gharwal (Uttarakhand).

How large was the river when it flowed?

According to experts who have studied the map of all relevant underground channels, Saraswati was probably 1500 km long, 3-15 km wide and five metres deep.

When did it die out and why?

Researchers say the mighty river dried up roughly 4000 years ago due to tectonic shifts of the earth. Due to these shifts, supply to the river was cut off and the remaining waters seeped down below the earth from the fissures created due to the tectonic movements. It is the water that remained below and the dried river beds that are being investigated and fresh findings discovered as a result of the probes.

How did experts conclude that the water and soil beneath the earth that they researched belonged to the Saraswati river?

The study was done on the elements that were on the track the river is said to have taken when in full flow. Some of the water in parts of Rajasthan was found to be as old as 8000 years; the ‘youngest’ element was 2500 years old!

What states did the river cover in its journey?

It flowed across Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan before emptying itself into the Arabian Sea at Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.

How did it reach Allahabad, which is said to be a confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati?

Experts say the river never flowed independently in Allahabad, but parts of it united with Yamuna which met the Ganga there. That is how all the three are said to have met.

Government admits to dried up Saraswati river

(First appeared in The Pioneer)

Rajesh Singh

In a significant shift from its earlier stand that probes conducted so far showed no evidence of the now invisible Saraswati river, the central government recently admitted that scientists had discovered water channels indicating “beyond doubt” the existence of the “Vedic Saraswati river.”

The government’s fresh submission came in response to an un-starred question in the Rajya Sabha on December 3 by Prakash Javadekar (BJP), who wanted to know whether satellite images had “established the underground track of Saraswati, and if so, why should the precious water resources not be exploited to meet growing demands.”

To this, the Union Water Resources Ministry quoted in writing the conclusion of a study jointly conducted by scientists of ISRO, Jodhpur and the Rajasthan government’s Ground Water Department, published in the Journal of Indian Society of Remote Sensing. Besides other things, the authors had said that “clear signals of palaeo-channels on the satellite imagery in the form of a strong and powerful continuous drainage system in the North West region and occurrence of archaeological sites of pre-Harappan, Harappan and post-Harappan age, beyond doubt indicate the existence of a mighty palaeo-drainage system of Vedic Saraswati river in this region… The description and magnanimity of these channels also matches with the river Saraswati described in the Vedic literature.”

A leading educationist and currently chancellor of Jawaharlal University, Yash Pal who had published in 1980, in his own words “a small paper on the existence of Saraswati river which attracted attention,” concurred with the view. “Surveys so far have brought out clearly the path the river had taken when in flow,” the National research Professor told The Pioneer. He did a stint with ISRO (which has played a pivotal role in the probes so far) from 1973-1980 where he set up the Space Application Centre.

On whether the central government should assume a pro-active role on the issue of reviving the river to tackle the water shortages, he said, ``With advancement of technology more research should be conducted. The river was not lost yesterday; perhaps due to tectonic shifts it disappeared ten thousand years ago. We have to keep these issues in mind.”

All through its tenure until now, the UPA government had denied the existence of the mystery river. Then Culture Minister Jaipal Reddy had told Parliament that excavations conducted so far at nine sites had not revealed any trace of the lost river Saraswati. He stated that the UPA government had not extended the sanction for the project given by the NDA government. Giving a progress report of the Saraswati River Heritage Project launched by the NDA government, he had said that, though the project report was prepared in September 2003 envisaging a cost of Rs 36.02 crore, it was later slashed to Rs 4.98 crore.

The Leftists too, who commanded great influence over the first five years of the UPA regime, were dismissive of the evidences. Senior leaders even castigated probe agencies for ‘wasting’ time and money over the study of the mystery river. Three years ago, senior CPI (M) leader and Politburo member Sitaram Yechury slammed the ASI for its efforts. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture which he headed in 2006, said, ‘‘The ASI has deviated in its working and has failed in spearheading a scientific discipline of archaeology. A scientific institution like the ASI did not proceed correctly in this matter,’’ the report added.

These assertions had come despite mounting evidence of the river collected by central agencies such as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Geological Survey of India (GSI), Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Central Groundwater Authority (under the Water Resources Ministry). The government had also failed to acknowledge expert opinion that the river’s revival could tackle the increasing water demands of more than 20 crore people in the North-West region of the country.

The first national impetus for research on Saraswati came during the NDA regime when the then Union Culture Minister Jagmohan in June 2002 announced excavations to trace the river’s course. He named a team of four experts – Baldeo Sahai of ISRO, Ahmedabad, archaeologist S Kalyan Raman, glaciologist Y K Puri and water consultant Madhav Chitle – for the task. But even earlier, states like Haryana had begun their study of the ‘underground river’ in the state.

Talking of the progress, SL Aggarwal, an official in Haryana Irrigation Department said, “Work on the 3.5 km stretch of river Saraswati between Jyotisar and Bibipur would be completed in one and half months and then we would be able to revive the ancient river and be able to use the water for irrigation purposes.”

The Haryana government recently sanctioned Rs 10.05 crore for the project of revival of the river, with the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) carrying out geo-physical and geo-electric surveys for drilling of wells in association with KurukshetraUniversity for exploratory purposes.
A non-government organisation (NGO), Saraswati Nadi Sodh Sansthan, has also been working for the revival of the ancient river through its entire track. Two seminars were held on this issue on October 22, 2008 and November 21, 2009 at Kurukshetra where representatives from ONGC, Geological Survey of India and Indian Space Research Organisation were invited.
Rajasthan too has been an active participant in the project. Some four decades ago the Archeological Survey of India (GSI) had conducted excavations at a village named Kalibanga in Srigananagar district of Rajasthan, unearthing a full- fledged township beneath a mound, locally called ‘Thed.’
The ASI researchers came to the conclusion that the sight belonged to the Harappan period. Subsequent studies revealed that this flourishing town was situated on the banks of the Saraswati which once flowed from this part of the Rajasthan desert.
About two decades ago, scientists at Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) at Jodhpur launched a project to track down the traces. They concluded that the ancient channels were a dead river that could well be Saraswati. Interestingly, here, the ancient texts and the geographical history of the region were constant bases of reference of the studies.
Analyses of images earlier taken by the American satellite Landsat in the 1970’s clearly showed the presence of underground water in a definitive pattern in the Jaisalmer region. As part of the project, then, underground water researchers were asked to dig bore wells at places from where this lost river used to flow. They selected Chandan Lathi near Jaisalmer for this purpose.
To the surprise of researchers, the water found after digging the bore wells at places on the course of the river was not only sweet but available in plenty. Encouraged by this discovery, they dug two dozen bore well in the area, from where the river used to flow, and in all of them they found sweet water.
A few years later Dr Vakankar, a noted historian, as part his Itihas Sanklan Yojna, visited this and other sites linked with the river. Together with another expert Moropant Pingle, he concluded that the Saraswati used to flow from this part of Rajasthan, Sirsa in Haryana, Bhatinda in Punjab and Srigangangar district in Rajasthan.

With the government indicating a shift in its position, it remains to be seen whether the research work by central agencies that had come to a near halt, will now resume.

Inputs from: Santanu Banerjee/ New Delhi
Nishu Mahajan/Chandigarh
Lokpal Sethi/Jaipur

Saraswati flows on in ASI records

(First appeared in The Pioneer)

Rajesh Singh

While it is only now that the Union Government has admitted to the existence of the Vedic river Saraswati after being in a denial mode for five years, the Archaeological Survey of India’s National Museum in New Delhi has all along displayed for visitors maps and written text highlighting not only the river’s existence but also its crucial role in sustaining what we know as the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Not only does the Museum endorse the river’s existence before it dried up, it also refers to the Indus Valley Civilisation as Indus-Saraswati Civilisation.

The National Museum is a repository of historical and archaeological heritage of the country and comes under the same Culture Ministry whose Minister in the first UPA regime had categorically denied the river’s existence. The Museum is patronised by visitors from across the country and abroad.

This is what a text put up in the Harappan Gallery of the Museum says: “Slowly and gradually these people evolved a civilisation called variously as the ‘Harappan civilisation’, the ‘Indus civilisation’, the ‘Indus Valley civilisation’ and the ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation.” After all, experts have pointed out that nearly 2,000 of the 3,000 excavated sites are located outside the Indus belt and along the Saraswati course.

The text further elaborates the important role of the river: “It is now clear that the Harappan civilisation was the gift of two rivers — the Indus and the Saraswati — and not the Indus alone.” It is clear, yes, but not to the Government that only now has rather reluctantly accepted the river’s existence.

The Harappan Galley also has a map titled Major Excavated Sites of the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation (the terminology once again) which shows the Saraswati river (dotted possibly because it has dried up) emptying into the Arabian Sea at Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Yet another display, the Harappan Civilisation Map highlights the Ghaggar river (dotted) flowing on a similar path. Experts have identified the Ghaggar — now a seasonal river — as what was once the mighty Saraswati.

The Museum thus emphasises the following: One, there was a river Saraswati; two, it existed in the Vedic period; and three, since the Indus Valley civilisation was nurtured by the Saraswati as well, the civilisation must be referred to as Indus-Saraswati civilisation.

But even in the face of these assertions, backed by years of research and mounting new evidence, the official response has been status quoist, preferring not to tamper with old beliefs handed over to us by early Western academics and eagerly adopted by home-grown experts. ASI director BB Lal writes in the preface of his acclaimed book The Saraswati flows on, about the "persistent assertion by Western linguists and historians and their more vociferous, Indian counterparts that the Rig Vedic Saraswati was the Helmand of Afghanistan."

Calling the assumption "completely baseless", he pointed out that the Rig Veda (10.75.5) clearly stated the river Saraswati lay between the Yamuna and the Sutlej - none of which existed in Afghanistan! Since the Rig Veda incidentally mentions the Saraswati as many as sixty times, and on many occasions in detail, it should be clear to all but the supremely blinkered that the river did indeed exist in the Vedic period.

The establishment of this fact then leads us to a bone of contention: Did the civilisation end due to an Aryan invasion or the drying up of the river?

NS Rajaram in his excellent book Saraswati River and the Vedic Civilisation notes that the discovery of the river 'dealt a severe blow" to the theory that Aryans invaded India which then had the Harappan Civilisation. The theory supposes that the Harappans were non-Vedic since the Vedic age began with the coming of Aryans.

But the National Museum makes no such distinction. In fact, as we have earlier noted, it refers to the role of the Saraswati in nurturing the Harappan civilisation. Now, since the Saraswati flowed during the Vedic period, the Vedic era ought to have coincided with the Harappan age. Rajaram says in his book that the Harappan civilisation "was none other than the great river (Saraswati) described in the Rig Veda. This means that the Harappans were Vedic."

So, if the Harappans were Vedic and thus 'Aryan', who invaded the civilisation and caused its demise? Experts have pointed out that there is no evidence through the excavation in the Indus-Saraswati region that an invasion had ever happened, much less from Aryans who "came from outside". Rajaram, like many others, believe that the Saraswati's drying up was the principal cause for the civilisation's decline. This fits in well with the National Museum's contention that the Saraswati was a major lifeline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.

Rajaram adds his voice to the theory. He notes in the book, "It is beginning to be recognised that what ended the Vedic Age (the Harappan era) was not any invasion but the drying up of the Saraswati - an event that was first placed at 1900 BC but which may have been pushed back beyond 2000BC for the date of 'complete' drying up of the Saraswati river."

Well known scholar on Indian Studies and Sanskrit, Wendy Doniger is cautious on the invasion theory. She remarks: "The Vedic people had other enemies, and the Indus Valley people had other, more likely sources of destruction, nor is there any evidence that their cities were ever sacked… The smug theory that a cavalcade of Aryans rode roughshod into India, bringing civilisations with them, has thus been seriously challenged."

But, although her book is a remarkable history of the Hindus and demonstrates her knowledge and appreciation of the Hindu way of life, it fails to do justice to the Saraswati river issue. There is just a very sparse mention of the river that is not just held in reverence by millions of Hindus but also holds the key to understanding our ancient civilisation.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The private window to rural education

The Beautiful Tree
By James Tooley
Penguin Viking
Rs 499/-

Rajesh Singh

Schools operated by private parties are supposed to be for children of well-off families and those run by the government are for the rest of the others. This is the general impression. Another impression is that, while the privately managed schools are mercenaries driven by profits, government institutions reach out to the poorest of the poor offering them free education denied by the privileged institutions. Such beliefs have been crucial in the spread of government-run schools at the primary and secondary levels at least in Third World countries including India. It is not an easy task to debunk these well-entrenched thoughts. James Tooley has attempted to set the record straight, exposing the hollowness of those claims by material that he collected in the course of his extensive research and travels in India, China and a clutch of African countries.

The bias – uninformed as it turns out to be – made government authorities shut their eye to the very real world of private sector education at affordable cost, with needy students in these schools being taught for free. Not just that, the officials at various levels failed to appreciate that the less privileged families preferred these schools for their children to government-run institutions because they believed the former offered reliability and quality.

The author ran into problems even before he could begin the project that he termed “a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves.” After he initially stumbled on the flourishing private school culture in the poorest localities of Hyderabad, Tooley discussed the issue with World Bank officials for guidance but found them unresponsive. He says in the book, “They weren’t at all impressed. I met a group of staff members in their pleasant offices, replete with potted ferns and pretty posters of cute children. Most, it was true, had never heard of private schools serving the poor… no one considered my information very significant.”

Tooley takes a swipe at Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who in his work India: Development and Participation “trotted out the standard line on private education, that the ‘privileged classes’ are the ‘main clients’ of unaided private schools.” The author also quoted Sen as saying that the government should be more actively involved in “opening more schools…” Tooley says even eminent persons such as Sen, who are well informed about the major role the private schools have played in educating students from the less privileged sections of society, have failed to recognize the fact and continue to harp on the government involvement as the panacea.

What amazes the author is that the material used as source for these misplaced conclusions, brimmed with information on how private education was touching the lives of the poor, with enrollments among them rising with the year. For instance, the World Bank’s Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) covering four north Indian states, at one place stated, “Even among poor families and disadvantage communities, one finds parents who make great sacrifices to send some or all of their children to private schools, so disillusioned are they with government schools.”

Yet this very institute cold-shouldered Tooley. The author then found a patron by chance in Goa at a seminar where he presented his “small scale Hyderabad research.” Charles Harper of John Templeton Foundation, who was there, was impressed enough by the material to back the project for more extensive research, covering Africa and China, besides India. And from then on began his ‘personal journey.’

While, unlike most journeys Westerners take of India that throw fresh light and rub prejudices away from the traveller, Tooley’s inroads were intentioned to fortify his clear belief that private sector education was reaching out to the poor. Still, he too was surprised – and more than happy – to come across material that shattered the fond conviction of many Whites that the British brought quality education into India, with all the accompanying paraphernalia like building, blackboard etc. In a chapter tellingly titled ‘The Men Who Uprooted the Beautiful Tree’, the author quotes Mahatama Gandhi’s observations on how the British education system had failed India. The Father of the Nation said, “This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education. Our state would revive the old village schoolmaster and dot every village with a school both for boys and girls.”

Following his line of thought, Tooley talks of the effort made by Sir Thomas Munro in the early 19th century to assess the “ignorance” of the natives. He asked his Collectors from across the country to conduct a survey and inform about the schools that existed their respective regions before the British intervened. The author states, “Far from there being no schooling in India before the British brought their system, the figures show an abundance of pre-existing schools and colleges.” Munro, in fact, wrote that the levels of enrollment (before the British involved themselves in education) were “higher than it was in most European countries at no very distant future.”

One actor in the destruction of the ‘beautiful tree’ was Macaulay. As Tooley quotes, this great scholar was completely dismissive of Indian scholarship, as his infamous remark showed, “…all the historical information which has been collected in all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” Tooley then goes on to talk of the “modern Macaulays – today’s development experts, academics, aid agency officials” -- who are well-intentioned but erroneously believe that the poor need their help and cannot have a choice to educate their children whichever best way they can devise, including private education.

The so-called discovery of a robust education system before the British advent could have surprised only the stiff-upper lip Westerner. India has had a guru-shishya tradition for ages, and open air classes still abound in several villages. While there are drawbacks, there is no denying the fact that the country had a sound education system when the British came.

But this is a diversion, though an important one for the author since it took him to various libraries and research centres. The book is not on the point of the existence of quality education in pre-British times but on how the poor in developing and under-developed nations are increasingly exercising a choice to offer private sector education to their children in the hope of a better future for them. Whether in India, the African countries he visited or China, he met families that struggled to survive but were intent on sending their children to the neighbourhood private school. They spoke of the unreliability of government schools where teachers regularly remained absent and classes routinely merged into an unwieldy mass of children. Tooley visited several of these government institutions and found for himself how true the unflattering observations were.

On the other hand, he visited the many small private schools run by dedicated teachers for neighbourhood children. Since the teacher and the student came from virtually the same backyard, communication was easier, which made learning fun. While the owners of nearly all of these schools clarified that they were operating the institutions for profit, they pointed out instances where some students were given free education since their parents simply could not afford the fee. These were not ‘charitable’ institutions, as some critics of private schooling said to explain away the patronage of these schools by the poor.

The book is a real eye-opener for all those who have a stake in enhancing education in our country. This includes nearly everyone – you, me, the government and the private enterprise. As Nandan Nilekani writes in the foreword, “The goal of bringing education to all in the next few years has seemed unlikely given the progress we have made over the last couple of decades. A beautiful Tree, however, is testament to the fact that it can still be done. Universal schooling will be achieved not just through a top-down, public funded program, but through the efforts and creativity of school entrepreneurs...”

School entrepreneurs – perhaps the reform-minded Kapil Sibal would want to pursue the idea.

1857: Battle for self-esteem, lost yet won

Tatya Tope's Operation Red Lotus
By Parag Tope
Rs 595/-

By Rajesh Singh

Several books have been written on the 1857 Uprising, variously referred to as the Revolt, Mutiny and India's first War of Independence. These titles reflect the tone of the books; for instance, the word 'mutiny' is used when the book emphasises that the event was a mere military (mis)adventure by a group of disgruntled Indian soldiers in the British pay, and 'revolt' when an author has extended the development to include disenchantment at least in some sections of civil society with the foreign rule. Some writers further enlarged the historic act to conclude it was indeed orchestrated as a freedom struggle against the British rule in the country. Tatya Tope's remarkable work falls in the latter category.

The cynical minded may be justified in believing that the book is a glorified account of the `Sepoy Mutiny' since it has been authored by a member of the Tope family. Tatya Tope, after all, was a key figure in the event and his family member cannot but be expected to extoll virtues, some of which may not exist.

To some extent that may be true, since the book does glorify the characters of this first War of Independence while keeping out the savage and gory acts of the 'mutineers' against women and children that other books have spoken about. There is of course no reason to be overly sensitive -- with thousands of people involved in the uprising, brutalities will have happened. But to simply harp on this perhaps deliberate oversight and dismiss the book altogether would be a grave error.

'Operation Red Lotus' is a first-of-its kind expose on how the 1857 incident was a major offensive against the British rule that could well have succeeded. It demolishes the myths that the revolt was the mere result of frustations of individual rulers who failed to get their due from the foreign rule, that it was bereft of leadership, that the vast majority of the population even in the region where it happened was a passive observer unwilling to involve in the fight. Finally, Parag Tope demonstrates the intricate planning that went into the revolt and the alarm of the British over the coming together of the Hindus and the Muslims to oust them.

While a large part of the book details the operational planning and networking of troops in various parts of north India, there is sufficient material to indicate that it was not just a revolt by soldiers; civilians were involved in taking care of the troops as they moved from place to place securing the 'liberated' areas. Villagers rose to the task by caring for their food and lodging, and there is no evidence that they did so out of coercion. The mysterious but logical movement of chappatis and red lotus petals -- that is the high point of the book since no other before this could crack the code -- would not have been possible without the voluntary involvement of the civilians.

The book has a very scientific approach; it uses maps and diagrams to detail the offensive, and falls back upon a host of primary and secondary sources to consolidate its claims. This should not be surprising since the US-based author has a Master's degree in engineering and an MBA in strategy. What adds to the sytematic approach is the active involvement of a number of other family members with varied and distinguished backgrounds: for instance, Rupa Tope-Joshi has a Master's degree in psychology while Nandita Saini-Tope is a software professional.

Contrary to claims by some historians that the uprising eventually failed because it had no leadership, this book shows the strong leadership of Tatya Tope at the behest of Nana Saheb. Of course the titular head of the event was Bahadur Shah of Delhi, but everyone knew he had a symbolic though crucial role of perform -- that of projecting a Hindu-Muslim alignment in the fight against the British. Modern day historians agree that the British were rattled by this convergence and decided never to allow the alliance to happen again. The 1857 incident also hastened London's political class 's resolve to handle India directly.

Many historians have contended that `mutineers' like the Rani of Jhansi -- unfortunately consigned to the fringes of our history -- fought a purely personal battle because her adopted son was not recognized by the British, but that is only half-truth. Even a cursory reading of the Declaration of the 1857 uprising, produced in the book, shows that leaders ranging from the Jhansi queen to Bahadur Shah to Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow were united in getting the British out because the foreign rulers had enslaved the Indian on his own soil, ruined his economic status and attacked his religio-cultural identity. Parag Tope also demonstrates how the greased cartridge issue became a trigger for the uprising; the plan to topple the foreign yoke had been put into motion by the resentful Indians even earlier.

Finally, the book also dwells on the reasons why the revolt/mutiny/uprising/war eventually failed. The brutal suppression by the British who left behind a trail of unimaginable atrocities proved too much for a military campaign to sustain against the rulers. Moreover, the eventual death of the Jhansi queen and Tatya Tope himself
ended what should be considered by nationalist-minded people India's first War of Independence.

One major factor that the book does not mention for the unstaintability of the uprising was the near complete absence of support of key Indian intellectuals of the time. People in the East like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar kept aloof while in the West social reformers like Jyotiba Phule refused to have anything to do with what he must considered 'upper caste' dealings. They may have had justifiable reasons, but the fact remains that their involvement could have made a difference. Perhaps that is a topic that another book should explore.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Colonial Rediscovery of India

(First published in The Pioneer dated February 7, 2010)

The Rediscovery of India is largely on expected lines as the distinguished author tries to reconstruct Indian history through a conventional Western perspective and hits several roadblocks in the form of dubious interpretations, writes RAJESH SINGH

The Rediscovery of India
Author: Meghnad Desai
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 699

The story of British India and of India after Independence has been written by a galaxy of writers — professional historians, researchers, politicians and assorted academics. Virtually all “angles” and perspectives have been covered in the decades since 1947, and it would be therefore safe to assume that nothing fresh remains to be explored, unless of course more documents get declassified. The Rediscovery of India, thus, has to be read purely for the interpretations and observations of the author who is a distinguished economist and political commentator with a global canvas.

While the book is largely on expected lines — Desai loves Nehru, is ambivalent towards Indira Gandhi and thoroughly despises the Right — it hits several roadblocks in the form of dubious interpretations. Perhaps the problem is that the author sees developments from a Western perspective, and that too of the conventional kind.

According to him, India’s history — at least that which he considers relevant — began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama to Calicut. He calls it India’s “induction into global history.” With such a beginning, the book’s direction is clear to the reader. Nothing before — the glorious chapters of Mughal, Hindu and Buddhist rulers — is important enough to merit a mention.

Hailing the British, he says their arrival in India saved the country from division. Desai claims the British were responsible for the single entity that India came to be shaped into. A fractured group of kingdoms earlier, it would surely have met Europe’s fate of balkanisation, he asserts.

Later on, he hits upon another theory of how Vedic gods were “marginalised.” He says most experts agreed that what emerged by the end of the first millennium BCE was a synthesis of the two belief systems with the ‘dark gods’ — Shiva, Vishnu and Kali — emerging as dominant and the Vedic gods increasingly marginalised. This, according to the author was due to the emergence of a rival belief system that Buddha preached in sixth century BCE. This is a strange denouement because by no stretch of imagination did the so-called Vedic gods ever get marginalised. In fact, they flourished in the minds of the faithful side by side, and this continues right until this very day.

But Desai’s clarity deserts him at times. For instance, he remains unclear on what led to the long period of economic stagnation that cost the nation “thirty years of low growth.” While on the one hand he says it was due to the centralised policy of the union government, on the other he acknowledges that, “perhaps the problem was not so much central control as the policy chosen.”

The author comes across as a staunch supporter of the British move to promote the English language often at the cost of the local ones. He pulls up those like John Marriot who believed the British launched a programme to “appropriate Indian languages to the exigencies of colonial rule.” He says languages cannot be appropriated and adds the British had “liberated” languages from “narrow caste monopoly and disseminated them to any and all Indians who wanted to learn them.”

While it is true that languages like Sanskrit had been monopolised by a section of the society limited to the upper caste Brahmins, the British never liberated the language and made it accessible to the common man. They only made English relatively more accessible. If literature and languages flourished, it was during the Mughal rule.

It is ridiculous for Desai to observe that someone like Bhimrao Ambedkar would not have been able to get a doctorate had the British not made language accessible to all, including the low caste. He accepts that the British taught themselves Sanskrit with the help of the local elite. Was this done by force, since the elites were supposedly loath to pass on knowledge and monopolise it?

But the author is right about the Portuguese in Goa who went about imposing Portuguese and destroying the local language and culture. Perhaps they did not have the vision to realise how important it is to merge with the local milieu of a nation you want to subjugate for a long period of time. Yet ironically, the Portuguese ruled Goa longer than the British did the rest of India.

Given his endorsement of the British role in “liberating” language, it does not come as a surprise that the author has tremendous regard for Thomas Macaulay, and credits him for the “modernity” that he brought to India through English. Never mind Macaulay’s infamous statement: “I have never found one among them (Orientalists or Indian) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of Western literature, is indeed, fully admitted….”

The author seeks to dilute the arrogance of the statement by saying Macaulay’s remark was not racist; it was universalist since he made similar comments on Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French. Does that make it more acceptable?

Desai says Macaulay’s impact on India was more although he served here for just four years; in contrast, John Stuart Mill, his opponent handled the affairs for 34 years. True, but Macaulay being in India had a more direct impact. Strangely, the author finds in Macaulay’s contempt for local circumstances and culture, the act of a “genius” who derived his policy “from general principles.”

He wonders about the “great silence” on the Indian side on the 1857 revolt; the little that emerged praised the British for controlling the mutiny. But that was to be expected for two reasons: One, the suppression allowed for little immediate response; and two, the ‘modernity” in Indian thinking that the author had earlier commended. A third reason could be the Left influence in the succeeding years on history which did not see the event as a liberation struggle.

The author says, in those early years the “mutineers” did not have an idea of a “nation”; even if they were very clear who the insiders were and who were the aggressors. But in the end, even if many of them fought for self, it was to liberate from a foreign yoke.

Moreover, one can take on Desai for his claim that the concept of nationhood did not exist. While there are several writers who would contest the assertion, the author would do well to read Parag Tope’s Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus, where Parag asserts how the idea of nationhood existed in a robust manner during that period.

Again unlike what Desai believes, the “rebels” were not driven by petty personal considerations but by the larger goal of liberty and dignity. This is evident in the proclamation made by the Delhi emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who led the 1857 revolt. It spoke, among others, of the unfair taxation on the people of the country, monopolisation of trade and commerce by the English to the exclusion of Indians, denigration of Indian public servants and stifling of individual freedom.

Desai discovers a divisive communal element in the politics of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and inclusiveness in Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s. In the context of the Bengal Partition, he says — with an undercurrent of dislike — that Hindu religion was invoked by the likes of Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai to mobilise people against the British and that the Muslims were left out due to the Hindu slogans of Vande Matram and Swadeshi. But then, since a majority of the population was Hindu, mass awakening naturally led to a huge number of Hindus participating.

In any case, the two words are not the exclusive preserve of the Hindus but symbolise a larger objective of freedom and reverence for a “nation” concept that the author himself admitted did not exist earlier. What would the author — who is a Hindi film fan — say to the film Swades? Was that also communal, and what then was Shahrukh Khan doing in that?

The author makes a rather insensitive statement when he says that Independence came as a “transition, not a disjuncture.” In saying this, he appears to be paying a tribute to the British largely. But what about the horrors of Partition? According to him, the transition was smooth, “notwithstanding Partition.” Indeed, Lord, if this was smooth transition, what would define a violent and unruly one!

The author continues with his generalisation throughout the book. At one point he says the “ideology of Aryans coming to India and civilising it is very much a North Indian upper-caste Hindu narrative.” The author does not elaborate, of course, for there is little to elaborate. He has no corroborative evidence. On the contrary, the theory itself is a Western notion and carried forward by Leftist historians. Even though fresh evidence is undermining this theory, it continues to be touted by these people. Let the author tell us which prominent North Indian upper-caste Hindus are doing it, and if some are involved in them, are they representative of the entire upper caste Hindus?

The author, not known to be Left-inclined, tongue in cheek refers to Left economist Biplab Dasgupta’s comment on why the British won the Battle of Plassey that paved the way for imperial rule. He says the comment was “well within the Indian Marxist tradition.” Dasgupta wrote: “Palashi was a contest between two modes of production… While Siraj (ud daullah) represented decaying and degenerate federalism, the East India Company symbolised the worldwide rising power of nascent capitalism…” Thus, the lesser or the more powerful “evil” finally won.

The author in the course of the book offers little insights into, and nags us to re-visit, personalities that are embedded in our minds with a certain image. For instance, he talks of how Edmund Burke is referred to here with some regard. “Yet, Burke is a strange hero for the Indian nationalists to have chosen.” He quotes KM Panikkar as saying that during that man’s tenure, “moral consideration did not enter into the government of India.” Burke is a hero here to many for his denunciation of Warren Hastings (who was impeached back home).