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December 16, 1997


Rajeev Srinivasan

Winter of Discontent: Fumbling India's Future

This has not been a good season in Asia: all that glitter and holiday cheer on the Ginza in Tokyo and on Orchard Road in Singapore and on Kuta Beach in Bali seem a little forced in the wake of the financial meltdown. A 50% crash in the Indonesian rupiah; even the hitherto rock-solid Singapore dollar is down 15%. And back in India, the baffling Jain Commission report, bomb blasts in the deep South, and self-inflicted wounds. Indeed, a winter of discontent.

The Jain Commission report amazed me partly because a fundamental rule of law seems to have been discarded: that an accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Justice Jain, in his rambling, 5,280 page report, seems to have taken on the tasks of judge, jury and executioner. Unless I am mistaken, the report is merely an opinion: surely the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, accused essentially of treason, has the right to defend itself in a court of law.

Therefore, it seems to me that Sitaram Kesri's demand that the DMK quit the government forthwith had no legal standing whatsoever: well, it would have been high-minded of the DMK to voluntarily step down, but they were under no obligation to do so. Of course, we know there were other reasons behind the Congress demand, but did it even meet the letter of the law?

There is tremendous irony in Justice Jain's wide-ranging indictment of not only the DMK, but the entire Tamil ethnic group by extension: for what is considered Indian/Hindu culture today is largely attributable to the Tamil Bhakti saints of the 6th through the 13th centuries CE. Chauvinistic Hindi-speakers might dream of a prototypical Ram-Rajya based on North Indian customs; but in reality it was the mostly Saivite Southerners who revived Hinduism, which at the time was in danger of being decimated by the Buddhist Reformation.

The Bhakti saints essentially sang the Buddhists out of India with their intimate and personal love of God, which contrasted with the austere and impersonal path of the Buddhists. (Sankara, another Southerner, provided the intellectual rigour.)

In G Aravindan's brilliant exploration of crime and punishment, Chidambaram, the homesick Smita Patil character remembers her village home through the half-heard melodies of the rough rustic music of a millennium ago, from the Nayanar Saivite saints, perhaps an Appar or a Manickavasagar.

In R C Zaehner's translation from the Tamil, Appar sings:

Why fast and starve, why suffer pains austere?
Why climb the mountains doing penance harsh?
Why go to bathe in waters far and near?
Release is theirs, and theirs alone, who call
At every time upon the Lord of all.

Furthermore, if one were to delve into pre-history, it is quite likely that today's Tamils and other Dravidians are the direct descendants of the greatest civilisation of the subcontinent: the Indus Valley Civilisation. As Michael Wood suggests in his fabulous BBC Legacy series documentary, The Empire of the Spirit, the chants at the great Tamil temples today might be very close to what they sang to Pasupati, Lord of the Animals, at Moenjo-daro and Harappa and Lothal and Kalibangan millennia ago.

Justice Jain's ill-considered, blanket indictment of Tamils finds a dramatic counterpoint in O V Vijayan's just-published magnum opus, Thalamurakal (Generations). Reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magnificent canvases, populated with magic and fantasy, this book talks about our past, both Dravidian and Aryan, both savarna (high-caste) and avarna (low-caste); and the clashes arising therefrom. It is a powerful semi-autobiographical tale of the fall of the House of Ponmudi, a land-owning family whose collective sins finally bring it down.

Says one of Vijayan's characters, "Sanskrit is not the Aryan's language; the Vedas and Upanishads are not his either. It is unlikely that the meat-eating, rapist, nomadic Aryan would have uttered the sublime 'neti, neti'... The Aryan ransacked the sacred books of some small group of humans which was about to become extinct, and poisoned their words with his hubris and his selfishness." (Translation from Malayalam, and errors, mine). Fighting words, eh?

Not to deepen the fissures between North and South, though, but the good justice seems to have his foot firmly in his mouth. But then Dravidian chauvinists aren't particularly virtuous, either. For example, the DMK has a serious allergy to Hinduism, which has led them to encourage fundamentalists of other stripes, much to the detriment of the state in general.

That brings me to the 'anniversary' of the Ayodhya incident which was 'celebrated' with bomb blasts on trains in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is hard to even write about the 1992 event, because the very vocabulary used has become so politicised. The self-proclaimed 'progressives' always refer to the event as the 'tearing down of the Babri Masjid'. Their opponents talk about the 'liberation of the 'Ram Janambhoomi'. I can only say, differing with both, that it was an 'incident'; and a pox on both their houses.

The usual suspects among the 'progressives' did the usual breast-beating about the Ayodhya incident; however, as far as I can tell, none of them shed many tears for the innocent victims murdered in trains at Tiruchi, Erode and Thrissur, about as far away as you can get from Ayodhya. It is highly likely that none of these people had anything to do with Ayodhya whatsoever: they were merely going about their business. Surely, the one-sidedness and the hypocrisy are evident even to India's thick-skinned 'intellectuals'?

Obviously, the terrorists wished mostly to terrorise; and to emphasise that even the deep South, which has generally been an oasis free of communal tension, is vulnerable to them. This blatant anti-national activity ought to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Speaking of anti-national activity, what the politicians did in the recent past amounts to high treason. I am reminded of the book, Fumbling the Future about Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre, PARC. This great research centre essentially invented personal computing, including windows, the graphical user interface, the mouse and the local area network. However, PARC never had the vision to turn its inventions into commercial success. Apple did; Microsoft did; and 3Com did, all profiting mightily.

What India's politicians did in the last few weeks is tantamount to fumbling the country's future. Given the troubles in Southeast Asia, India was beginning to look like a beacon of solidity. The rupee was relatively steady, the fundamentals of the economy were fairly sound. And capital fleeing SE Asia was looking for a safe haven. China, India maybe?

China has begun to look a little shaky: a cover story in the Far Eastern Economic Review entitled 'Hitting the Wall in China' says 'Foreign investors are taking a hard look at their Chinese operations, and many dislike what they see. In response, some are taking more control. Others are just going home.' The amount of foreign investment pledged to China has fallen from $ 111.4 billion in 1993 to $ 73.3 billion in 1996, according to the FEER article. Chinese banks have a huge debt burden -- some $ 240 billion, according to the BBC. It is not clear how much of this is bad debt.

Compared to all this, India seemed to finally be getting away from the straitjacket of its Nehruvian rate of growth of 2 to 3% in GDP a year. An island of stability. It seemed the perfect opportunity for India to capture the attention of the foreign investor.

Alas, that reckoned without the unreasoning and blind ambitions of India's politicians. Exactly what was to be gained from bringing the government down? Nothing could bring Rajiv Gandhi back, after all: his death will always be a loss to his widow and his children. Obviously, it was a badly miscalculated grab for power. What it has accomplished, though, is clear: India has wasted yet another chance. And there are getting to be fewer and fewer chances.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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