Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let many Ramayanas bloom


At first glance, the controversy over Delhi University’s decision to remove an essay on the Ramayana from its undergraduate syllabus is needless. For million of Indians the different versions – essentially the crux of the essay – of one of the world’s greatest epics, are immaterial. They have grown up to believe and revere Rama as the Lord and Sita as his dutiful wife. It does not matter to them that some versions identify Sita as Ravana’s daughter, albeit born accidentally, or that Rama comes across as less than divine in others. The retelling of the story over centuries has done little to shake that faith, so what harm can noted scholar AK Ramanujan’s allegedly offensive essay cause?

In any case, most Indians, including the most devout Hindu, have not read the epic. Let alone the many versions, they have not even fully perused Valmiki’s Ramayana, considered a benchmark and easily the most acceptable retelling in the Indian consciousness. In fact, this version too is no longer the oft-quoted one. In most Hindu homes in large parts of the country, where the story of Rama is chanted in prayers, and in its community readings, it is not Valmiki but poet Tulsidas that is the favourite. The reasons for this are twofold: One, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas – which too is a running commentary on Rama and his exploits – is written in Avadhi, a local dialect that North Indians are familiar with, unlike the Ramayana, which is penned in Sanskrit and thus has a limited readership; and two, the Ramcharitamanas reflects the bhakti tradition that the masses easily identify with, because it asks for only complete and unquestioned submission, without seeking to engage a person in dialectics. Since the author here is not a scholar but an unabashed Rama devotee, his dohas and the chaupayees have a ring of innocent faith.

If at all there is a Ramayana that the country largely identifies with, it is the eponymous televised serial by film maker Ramanand Sagar. Stretching to more than 75 episodes, it captured the collective imagination of a nation in love with fanciful renditions of their favourite mythological stories. The serial was a mash of the populist passages from both Valmiki and Tulsidas, and drew, according to a report, more than 80 million viewers. More than two decades have gone since it was first aired, but it is still recounted like a definitive account of the epic.

Given all this, the current controversy over Ramanujan’s essay is strictly confined to the scholarly realm. Unfortunately, there are ‘intelligent’ minds who have over the years gained expertise in dragging in the largely unconcerned population into a ‘for or against’ debate on matters of faith – an exercise fraught with worrisome consequences. And, because the same appears to be happening with the Delhi University’s decision, the issue needs to be addressed. Of course, there is another dimension to the controversy: The right to free speech without crossing the blasphemy line. Incidentally, this right is available to citizens of all ideologies – even those of the Right who, whenever they exercise it in academic matters, are slammed as communal by the ever-so-secular Left intellectuals. But that’s a different story; we are on the Ramayana.

Unlike with the other major religions of the world, Hinduism does not have a definitive sacred text that has not been interpreted multiple times; some of these attempts have been so elaborate that they have virtually become new mythological works. The ¬Bhagvad Gita is a good example. Each one of the profound statements that Krishna makes to guide Arjuna has been interpreted by different people in different contexts. Some of them find sagacity in those statements, while others notice cunningness. But the Hindu mind has over the centuries absorbed the various inferences and cleverly chosen what suited it best in a given situation. It is this remarkable flexibility has given the scholar and the lay man alike the strength to attempt variations that in the case of another religion would have invited a resounding censure. However, that freedom would be severely jeopardised if we allow pressures to work on intellectuals who desire to reach out to an audience with a fresh retelling of our epics. It is on this premise – without going into the merits of the various Ramayanas – that the University’s decision must be faulted.

By all accounts, Ramanujan had said nothing very fresh or revolting that deserved his essay from being axed. All he did in that tract was to present before the students the various available interpretations of some key figures and incidents that are part of the different retellings of the epic. Almost all of them have been around for ages, without causing any visible dent in the faith of the multitude. Considering that the story straddles huge geographical parts – many of them now in East and South-east Asia – including, of course, Sri Lanka, it is natural for it to have undergone contextual changes in the environment it flourishes. If that gives rise to differing versions, it leaves the epic even more enriched. As author and an expert on the Hindu way of life, Wendy Doniger wrote in a magazine recently, “The glory of the Ramayana is its power to sustain an infinite variety of Sitas and Ramas and Hanumans and Lakshmanas. Reducing it to one narrow… constrained way of telling the story would be a terrible cultural loss for India.”

In fact, Sita, who is the second-most important figure of Ramayana, too has been the subject of many character interpretations – from being a docile wife whose husband’s wish is her command to a strong feminist who chose her way to select a husband. A book, In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, edited by Malashri Lal & Namita Gokhale, provides excellent takes on this mythological character. Banished by Rama, a then pregnant Sita later brings up her two children courageously as a single mother, imbibing in them the qualities of valour and fair play. This retelling of Sita is very different and more contemporary than the one our have ancestors passed on to succeeding generations depicting her as meek and demure.

Ravana too has been put a varied retellings, and within the country itself – the most common being the one that has privileged him with a near iconic status he enjoys in south India, where is not considered an evil character. Other protagonists like the money-god Hanuman also have undergone many image makeovers, with the Ramayana and its believers none the worse for it.

It would be in the fitness of things to recall perhaps the most famous line of all in the epic. In the Adhyatma Ramayana, Sita resorts to a brilliantly creative argument to persuade her husband to take her with him to the exile. She retorts, “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of even one where Sita does not go with Rama to the forest?” That should convince the die-hards not to lose sleep over the new versions that exist – and may yet be written.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Shut out the so-called Independents

(First published in The Pioneer dated October 12, 2011)


Those who oppose the replacement of the current first-past-the-post system that elects our representatives to the State Assemblies and Parliament, with the ‘majority’ system in which only a candidate that gets 50 per cent of the total votes polled plus at least one more is declared the winner, argue that, given the large number of contestants for each seat, it is near impossible for a candidate to secure 50 per cent of the total votes registered. It is a valid assertion, but not a reason to continue with a distorted system that gives us representatives who do not largely represent the majority of the voters. Ways must be found to reduce the fragmentation of votes that results in no candidate getting a majority chunk of the votes registered.

There are two important ways by which such division of votes among multiple parties and individuals can be curtailed to a large extent. One, through an enlightened electorate that across the country stops voting on the strength of parochial interests of regionalism, caste and religion; and two, by pruning down the number of contestants. While the first is still a chimera and will take long to evolve, the second option is at least in the realm of possibility because it can be done through amendments to our electoral laws. The step that needs to be taken here is to have laws that bars (or at least discourages) independent candidates from participating in the elections.

On the face of it, the proposal is outrageous because it seemingly impinges on the right of an eligible Indian citizen to contest elections. But this personal right has to be viewed in the context of the larger gain to Indian democracy, and this is the reason why several experts believe that any prospective poll reform must include such a provision. The Election Commission of India has, for instance, strongly pitched for the reduction of “non-serious” candidates in the electoral fray. They are largely the independents. While the poll panel offers a different reason for its suggestion — the proliferation of such candidates makes elections “cumbersome, expensive and unmanageable” — the fact also is that they lead to an unnecessary division of votes.

If the Government believes that prohibiting independent candidates from contesting polls would be too radical a measure and could invite legal challenges, it should hike by at least three times the existing security deposit. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 2002, had suggested doubling it. It had also recommended that an independent candidate who loses an election and contests another should pay a security deposit that is double the amount he paid in the earlier poll. The Commission had also suggested that, if an independent contestant fails to win five per cent of the total votes polled, he should be barred from contesting as an independent again for six years. If all of these suggestions are faithfully implemented, they alone would drastically reduce the number of independent candidates, if not altogether eliminate them from the candidates’ list for now.

The argument that such contestants represent an independent voice and, therefore, occupy an important space largely dominated by political parties, appears an attractive one, but the facts tell a different tale. A vast number of the elected independent candidates end up supporting one political party or the other. Post-election, in various States, these independent Legislators have become virtual extensions of political parties and Governments, actively participating in their deliberations and activities. So, the sense of independence is already gone. Independents often use their ‘unattached’ status to bargain for themselves a generous deal from political parties, and become the cause of political instability where they command some leeway.

A number of independents who contest elections are rebel party candidates, entering the fray after being denied the ticket by their party or because of some other grievance. They can, therefore, be hardly called ‘independents’. In many cases, post-elections they either revert to their party or latch up with another party. Again, in several instances, dummy candidates put up by political parties strut about as ‘independents’, thus queering the electoral pitch.

All in all, on most occasions, the independent candidates have remained far from independent, and, thus, no harm would be done if their numbers are curtailed or even done away with.

In any case, very few of the independent candidates get elected to the Legislatures or the Parliament to make a strong case for their continuance in the electoral system. According to a report of the Law Commission of India, submitted to the Union Government in May 1999, while as many as 1915 candidates fought elections to the 12th Lok Sabha as independents, a mere six of them were elected. As the Indrajit Gupta Committee report on State Funding of Elections remarked in relation to the 1996 Parliamentary polls, “Out of 10,635 independent candidates, only nine (0.08 per cent) of such candidates won and 10,603 (99.70 per cent) forfeited their deposits.”

This had been the trend even earlier and has continued later as well. According to the Election Commission of India’s statistics, 2,385 candidates contested the 2004 Lok Sabha election as independents, and only five won. This is barely 0.2 per cent. And, a huge 99.37 per cent lost their deposits. Even the 2009 Lok Sabha election reflected a more or less similar situation, with just nine independents managing to enter the Lok Sabha, though as many as 3829 independents participated in the elections.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Law Commission has had no hesitation in concluding that “the time is now ripe for debarring independent candidates from contesting Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly elections.”

The elimination of the independents from elections should actually be welcomed by the political parties, because not only will it check pre-poll rebellion but also help their candidates secure a more representative mandate from the electorate. The ‘50 per cent and at least one vote more’ idea will then be closer to reality.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Manmohan Singh cannot disown 2G responsibility

(First published in The Pioneer dated October 4, 2011)


Some people may think otherwise, but the fact is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot escape responsibility for the 2G swindle. At every step, from the time his now incarcerated Telecom Minister A Raja conceived the scam to its implementation to the various objections raised on it by some important government functionaries to the tacit and sometimes open approval by others, the Prime Minister was in the know. Yet he did nothing to halt the scandal in its tracks.

It is important to understand this fundamental point, because all through Mr Singh has got away by initially feigning ignorance, then lamenting the compulsions of coalition politics, and finally using the ace that not even his worst enemy could question his personal integrity. But now, more than ever after the 2G taint has directly hit the Congress with Mr P Chidambaram as the target, the Prime Minister appears vulnerable as never before. Whatever he or his spin doctors may say – the latest being that he cannot be held criminally liable for the lapses – he is a suspect in the public eye for being a silent spectator and, therefore, a sort of collaborator in the entire episode.

Let us begin with the Law Ministry’s letter of November 1, 2007 to the Telecom Ministry – a letter that the Prime Minister would have been aware of, because Raja replied to the Law Ministry’s letter not to the Law Minister but to Mr Singh directly. Then Law Minister H R Bhardwaj, clearly upset by the methodology adopted in allotting the spectrum, wrote to the Telecom Ministry, “In view of the importance of the case (2G spectrum allocation) and various options indicated in the statement of the case, it is necessary that the whole issue is first considered by an Empowered Group of Ministers and, in that process, the legal opinion of A-G (Attorney General) can be obtained.”

The Law Minister was responding to an opinion sought by the Telecom Ministry on going ahead with the allocation of 2G spectrum licence on first-come-first-served basis and on prices fixed in 2001. An enraged Raja wrote back – not to the Law Ministry but directly to the Prime Minister, as mentioned earlier – questioning the idea of an EGoM to decide on spectrum pricing. He said in that letter, “The Ministry of Law and Justice, instead of examining the legal tenability of these alternative procedures, suggested referring the matter to EGoM. Since generally new major policy decisions of a department or inter-departmental issues are referred to the GoM, and needless to say that the present issues relate to procedures, the suggestion of the Law Ministry is totally out of context.”

This was on November 2, 2007. The same day, the Prime Minister wrote back to Raja and cautioned him against taking any measures without informing him. “I would request you to give urgent consideration to the issues being raised with a view to ensuring fairness and transparency and let me know of the position before you take any further action in this regard,” Mr Singh directed the Minister. The Prime Minister also instructed him to adopt “correct pricing of spectrum and revision of entry fee”.

Thus, the Prime Minister was all along in the loop. But he did nothing to ensure that his directions were followed by the Telecom Minister. There was no tangible follow-up on Mr Singh’s part on what was turning out to be a huge scam.

Towards the end of November the same year, came another shocker for the then Telecom Minister. The Finance Ministry got into the act, with then Finance Secretary D Subbarao sending a stinker to the Telecom Secretary on the issue. Mr Rao wrote, “It is not clear how the rate of Rs 1600 crore, determined as far back as in 2001, has been applied for a licence given in 2007… In view of the financial implications the Ministry of Finance should have been consulted in the matter before you finalised the deal.”

Mr Subbarao added, “Meanwhile, all further action to implement the above licences may please be stopped.”

“If the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Telecom both agree…” – remember the Prime Minister’s clarification at a media interaction. But the Finance Ministry had not agreed to the deal. We know with the fresh revelations that only then Finance Minister P Chidambaram had consented – despite his initial reluctance – to whatever had happened, suggesting to the Prime Minister that it may be treated as a “closed chapter”. So, again, Mr Singh had the option to not treat it as a closed chapter, given the stink, and seek a review. He did not, and went along with Mr Chidambaram’s opinion. If today Mr Chidambaram is in the dock for that recommendation, how can the Prime Minister remain untainted for accepting the ill advice?

And, Mr Singh was wrong on another count: Even the Telecom Ministry had not, if one goes by the assertions of senior Ministry officials, agreed to Raja’s policy. Neither then Telecom Secretary D S Mathur nor then Department of Telecom Member (Finance) Manju Madhvan was on the same page with Raja. One had to leave in disgust while the other was swiftly replaced with the then Minister’s yes-man after he retired. With senior officials in the Department of Telecom registering their protest to the deal, the only way to believe the Telecom Ministry was in “agreement” is to accept that Raja alone was the Ministry!

Mr Singh cannot even say that he acted immediately after the matter came to light. The Pioneer was the first to report on the shady dealings as far back as in December 2008, and it went on to unravel layer after layer of the scam in a series of reports thereafter all through 2009 and 2010. That in turn triggered a flurry of activity, with the Comptroller & Auditor General, Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the courts turning the heat on the government. Raja, who presided over the scam as Telecom Minister had to depart and was eventually arrested.

But, at least a year before The Pioneer launched its scathing expose the matter had come to Mr Singh’s notice. Besides the official correspondences involving the Telecom Ministry, the Law Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in late 2007, that showed how the then Minister was manipulating the policy to favour a select few, the Prime Minister too had written to Mr Raja asking him to implement the policy in a fair and transparent manner. All of this is in the public domain now, as is the fact that Mr Singh took no action whatsoever.

Finally, the Prime Minister, being the innocent bystander that he has claimed to be all through the scam history, must tell us whether he was aware at least of the Finance Ministry’s recent note to the Prime Minister’s Office that, among other things, pointed to Mr Chidambaram’s “closed chapter” suggestion. If yes, why then did one of his senior Ministers claim that no such note existed, before it was secured – not for the first time, it now appears – through an RTI application? And, if he was not aware, then he is clearly clueless about what is happening in his office.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Grimness of Kashmir


My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light

Author: Wajahat Habibullah

Publisher: Penguin/Viking

Price: Rs 499

It is a crisis that fails to be resolved and refuses to go away. Kashmir has become a melting pot of conflicts fuelled by separatists in the Valley, infiltration from across the Line of Control and high-handedness of the security forces. It is an elephant that is being probed by blind men, who all have different interpretations of what has gone wrong and what could set it right. In the process, the common citizen is caught in a seemingly unending bind, not knowing when he will be able to lead a normal life.

Wajahat Habibullah’s personalised account presents a largely grim picture of the situation, and he offers little cause for optimism, delving often in the sayings of Kashmiri Sufi saints for solace. This is a disappointment, but at least the author has been honest in his appraisal. As a retired civil servant who spent much of his career days in Jammu & Kashmir, Habibullah was often closely involved with some the most important — and defining — developments in the Valley. He speaks, therefore, from experience as much as he does from his own assessment of the crisis. Yet, one cannot agree with all that he expresses in the book, since he allows personal prejudices to come in the way of an objective analysis of certain contentious events. Two of these deserve special mention: One, the 1993 Hazratbal shrine siege; and, two, the 1990 assassination of Mirwaiz Farooq and the subsequent violence.

The author says, “To this day, the Kashmiri public holds him (then Governor Jagmohan) responsible for the murder of the Mirwaiz and of those in the funeral procession.” But Habibullah does not say whether he agrees with the view that Jagmohan should be held accountable for the Mirwaiz’s killing. Since he admits elsewhere that extremist elements within the separatist movement were responsible for the death, the author should have categorically stated that Jagmohan could not be held guilty of the act. But, while Habibullah plays safe on the Jagmohan issue, he is unequivocal in criticising him for the violence that happened thereafter, in which several people were killed when the police opened fire on the Mirwaiz’s funeral procession. He notes, “This mishandling, by no means the last by the State’s administration, turned the fully fury of public rage against the Governor.”

If Jagmohan was indeed responsible, as Habibullah says, the matter should have been resolved after the former was shunted out following the incident. But it did not; on the contrary, things went from bad to worse with successive governments and Governors. In any case, there are other versions of the firing on Mirwaiz’s funeral procession, and the author’s is not definitive.

The author’s version of the Hazratbal siege by militants details the tortuous negotiations that went into the release of inmates taken hostage by the extremists. But, while he is elaborate in laying down how the discussions proceeded, he seems to have taken a soft view on the manner in which the Indian state capitulated at every step. This was capped by the release of the ultras after they surrendered. Their release was naturally part of the agreement reached. For Habibullah, the important thing is that the shrine “emerged unscathed, free from even the suspicion of desecration”. No doubt, that was a huge relief to all, but one wished he had slammed the militants for holing up in a shrine that is revered across the State. His observation — that the “successful conclusion of the negotiation is widely perceived as a turning point in the insurgency” — is na├»ve, even for a person who has not had the ringside view that the author enjoyed. Barely two years later came the Charar-e-Sharief disaster, after which one of the culprits, Mast Gul, escaped to Pakistan and continued his nefarious activities against India. More incidents of unrest continued to take place even after.

Habibullah is right in detailing the blunders made by the Government of India in handling the Kashmir issue, and none can deny that a more judicious approach could have saved the Valley from the unrest. But mere discontent with the Centre’s handling of the issue cannot be reason enough for the flourishing of militancy in the State. The active desire of hardliners in the Valley to dismember Kashmir from the Indian state and their readiness to accept assistance from across the border has complicated the issue. They have never been dealt with strongly enough; instead, the police — and at times the security forces — have made the situation worse by targeting innocents and giving a handle to the militants to exploit the situation.

The author’s interpretation of the frequent calls for ‘azaadi’ is cautious. In his view, that azaadi could well be a demand for greater freedom for the ordinary Kashmiri people to get on with their lives without the threat of death hovering over their heads. They want ‘inclusivity’. Fair enough. As any another Indian citizen, the Valley’s resident too has that right, and they exercise it — if need be, through demonstrations. But what does one make of the anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans that emanate from such processions?

A solution to the Kashmir issue won’t be possible, as the author says, without ensuring dignity to the people of Kashmir. But it will have to also provide dignity to the Indian state. The moderate leaderships in the Valley, and in our political system, will have to work together to achieve that goal.